In 1973, one of the biggest environmental disasters in US history occurred in St. Louis, Michigan. It continues to haunt many today, and ill-effects are being felt not only by those directly affected, but also by their children and grandchildren. Yet, most people haven’t heard of this environmental disaster, and many of the people who are affected by it—through ill-health of various types of cancer, birth defects, autoimmune diseases, etc.—don’t realize that their ill-health is due to this environmental disaster that happened more than 40 years ago.
The environmental disaster, which resulted in a human health disaster, that I’m referring to is the contamination of tons of animal feed with a fire-retardant chemical called PBB (polybrominated biphenyl). PBB is a highly toxic endocrine disrupting chemical, which dissolves in fat and persists in human and animal bodies for decades. It also persists in the environment, and continues to cause harm long after direct exposure has ceased.
In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Corporation (MCC) produced both Firemaster, a PBB flame-retardant, and Nutrimaster, a magnesium-based agricultural feed additive. Human error led to the two being mixed-up:
“MCC had a system where each product was safely packaged in color-coded sacks, so there were no chances of mistakes being made. The system worked well until early 1973, when an inventory supply problem led to a temporary shortage of color-coded sacks, and plain sacks had to be used instead. By coincidence, a new formulation of Firemaster was being trialed at the same time, and this new formulation was almost identical to Nutrimaster in appearance. Murphy’s law came into full effect, and a truckload of the reformulated Firemaster was inadvertently delivered to Michigan’s largest cattle and poultry feed manufacturer. By the time the mistake was discovered, poisoned animal feed had already been distributed to farmers statewide and had been fed to their livestock.” (source)
1.5 million chickens, 30,000 cattle, 5,900 pigs, and 1,470 sheep then consumed this feed, became contaminated with PBBs. Thousands of cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens died horrible, painful deaths, and many more were euthanized. This excerpt from the film, Cattlegate, shows the toll that the PBB mix-up had on animals and their human keepers:
Before the mix-up was discovered, hundreds of contaminated cattle and chickens were slaughtered, and their meat was used for human consumption. Milk from contaminated dairy-cows was also consumed by humans. When the PBBs got into the human food-chain, more than 8 million people, mainly in Michigan, consumed PBB-contaminated meat and dairy, and the mix-up transformed from an environmental disaster to a human-health disaster.
“Initial data gathered from the PBB cohort study revealed other health problems among the hundreds of families and thousands of individuals recruited. Like other infamous toxicants such as bisphenol A and dioxin, PBB is classified as an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it interferes with the body’s array of natural hormones. Growing concern about endocrine disruptors since the 1990s has spurred an avalanche of research linking these chemicals to thyroid problems, diabetes, obesity, fertility problems, changes in pubertal development, and hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.” (source)
Many of the health problems caused by PBB exposure didn’t emerge immediately. The health issues listed in the quote above—thyroid problems, diabetes, obesity, fertility problems, changes in pubertal development, and hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast and prostate cancer—take time to develop. Just as worrisome as the time-bomb of diseases caused by direct PBB exposure, are the epigenetic consequences of PBB exposure. The children, and maybe future grandchildren, of people exposed to PBB appear to have worse health outcomes than the children of people who haven’t been exposed to PBB. (The extent of the health differences between the offspring of people exposed to PBB and people not exposed to PBB is still being studied.) There are harrowing stories from people who were exposed to PBB, and who had children who were exposed to PBB in-utero, including this comment:
“My first wife was pregnant with our second child at the time of the cover up. My wife, following doctor’s instructions, was on a fairly high fat diet including lots of milk, cheese and other dairy foods. Our child was a full term stillborn with massive deformities including spina bifida, sexual ambiguity, and a unformed skull bone that was open.” (source)
The people who lived in Northern Michigan in 1973, especially those in the agricultural communities near the MCC Plant, likely know whether or not they were directly exposed to PBB at the time, and many, like the commenter above, tell harrowing stories of the effects of PBBs on the health of their children. They should be believed, no matter how difficult it is to quantify the epigenetic effects of an environmental disaster that occurred more than 40 years ago. Additionally, anyone who suffers from the diseases associated with exposure to PBBs and other endocrine disrupting persistent organic pollutants, including but not limited to, thyroid problems, diabetes, obesity, fertility problems, changes in pubertal development, and hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast and prostate cancer, should question whether they, their parents, or even their grandparents, were exposed to PBB. PBBs got into the food-supply, and many people ate PBB-contaminated meat and dairy products without realizing that they had been exposed.
Another reason that people today should be concerned about the PBB disaster of 1973 is that PBBs are PERSISTENT organic pollutants, “a large class of compounds that includes chemicals like DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins that resist being broken down in the body and the environment” (source). Persistent organic pollutants resist natural processes of decay and essentially never biodegrade. They move around the environment, in air and in water, and they move up and down the food-chain as they are consumed, the consuming animal dies, and they are consumed again. They tend to accumulate in the bodies of carnivores, and in the polar regions of the world, causing the most damage in the top predators, especially the top predators in the polar regions. Persistent organic pollutants can be contained, but inadequate measures to contain PBBs have been taken. Many of the euthanized animals that were directly harmed by PBBs were incinerated—sending PBB molecules into the air, and it is unknown where they landed. Other euthanized animals were buried, and though burial is one of the better ways of containing persistent organic pollutants, it is imperfect, as the animals’ bodies disintegrated and the PBBs seeped into the water table.
The harmful effects of persistent endocrine disrupting pollutants is described in the wonderful book, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story, where it is noted that:
“Much of the concern about hormonally active synthetic chemicals arises from the persistence that many of them have in the environment. Many don’t readily degrade into benign components. A generation after industrial countries stopped the production of the most notorious of these persistent chemicals, their legacy endures in food and in human and animal bodies. Some will be in the environment for decades, and in a few cases even centuries.”
Shortly after the uncovering of the disastrous mix-up at the MCC Plant, the use of PBBs was discontinued in America. However, their harmful legacy continues, and the children and grandchildren of those affected by the PBB disaster continue to experience ill-health related to their exposure. Because of the persistence of PBBs, the ill-effects they caused didn’t end when they stopped being manufactured. The release of tons of PBBs directly into the human food-supply in 1973 is still causing health problems for those exposed, and likely for many people who don’t realize that they have been exposed. The legacy of the PBB disaster is ongoing, and will likely continue for many decades, if not centuries. It is one of the most significant environmental and human health disasters of modern times, yet too few people know about it. When it comes to endocrine disrupting persistent organic pollutants, ignorance isn’t bliss, and though there’s not a lot that people can do to mitigate exposure, knowledge is empowering. The PBB disaster had far-reaching consequences—consequences that continue to haunt us today.