Michigan Radio
Dec 12, 2014 · 6 min read

Toxic Legacy

The Environment Report looks back at the PBB contamination of St. Louis, Michigan

It’s been more than 40 years since Michigan Chemical Corporation in St. Louis, Michigan (later Velsicol Chemical Corporation) made a catastrophic error and shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical called polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) to the Farm Bureau Services, instead of a nutritional supplement for livestock. PBB got mixed into livestock feed, but it took a year to discover the accident. Before the mix-up was discovered, millions of Michigan residents ate contaminated milk, meat and eggs.

Michigan Chemial produced polybrominated biphenyls, DDT, cattle feed additives, and various other chemicals at its plant in St. Louis, Michigan.

That incident is well known, but less well known is what is happening today. In our series, we look at the ripple effects of this mistake — and of the shoddy practices at Michigan Chemical/Velsicol — that continue to affect people’s lives today here in Michigan. Researchers are finding long-lasting health effects of the PBB mixup, and the town of St. Louis has had to bear the burden of living with highly toxic chemicals in their water and in their yards.

The Environment Report’s Mark Brush, Lindsey Smith, and Rebecca Williams will cover the contamination’s lasting impact on the residents’ health, the environment, and the costs of clean up.

You can hear the full series on The Environment Report’s website.

Do you have a story to tell about how the PBB contamination affected your life? Share it with us.

The People of St. Louis

Former St. Louis resident, Stephen Boyd

Stephen Boyd grew up a block and a half from the entrance to “The Chemical” — the name they called the chemical plant in St. Louis.

Boyd said the hulking presence of the Velsicol Chemical Corporation on the banks of the Pine River was just a fact of life.

Boyd describes what it was like living near the factory and working for “The Chemical.”

Ed Lorenz, foreground, addresses a meeting of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

Ed Lorenz is a professor of history and political science at Alma College. Alma is right next to the city of St. Louis, Michigan and Lorenz has been involved with the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force for many years.

Lorenz shares his memory of how he first learned about the history of the Velsicol Chemical Corporation in St. Louis.

Lorenz talks about how we’ve run low on money for clean-ups like this. As he sees it, we’ve all been involved in a “great inter-generational scheme” where our kids and grandkids will “pay for our fun.”

Norm Keon is a St. Louis native. He grew up around the chemical plant and has been working with other town residents in pushing for a cleanup of the contamination that Velsicol Chemical left behind. He also collaborated with Emory University researchers to hold a clinic for former Velsicol plant workers and other St. Louis residents — they had their blood drawn to test their PBB levels.

“This has been uplifting for me, it’s emotional, it gets me, that we’re finally involved in this,” he says.

Keon is currently an epidemiologist for three Michigan health departments.

Norm Keon stands on the banks of the Pine River and shares his memories of the plant.

Marcus Cheatham works with Keon. He’s the health officer of the Mid-Michigan Health Department. He says, “It’s been bigger than I ever imagined. The issues are so complex, and affect so much of what goes on in the community: community life, the economy, health, everything. One of the big things I’ve learned is how something like this traumatizes the community, and the pain and frustration that people are left with.”

“Long Before ‘Silent Spring’”

Environmental scientist Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, took on the chemical industry’s use of pesticides on the environment.

Community groups, such as the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, became the local model for bringing together researchers, government experts, and concerned citizens to call for accountability from the chemical industry and the government.

Citizens took part in local organizations and participated in public comments on Superfund site clean up. These are some of their statements.

Legacy stories

“I was five when they came to take the cows.”

I was five when they came to take the cows. They also took my dads hope that day and he was never the same. I just got my parents records from Emory as they are both deceased now. There is a lot of info my parents never talked with us. My dad’s last day he was alive he talked to me about Pbb and said he wished he would of done more reasearch (sic) and that I don’t forget how it happened and it will come back so be ready I guess dad was right . I could go on and on about different things that have happened but I am tired of texting many family’s in my area are still being devastated by this. Hope Emory can get funding to continue reasearch (sic) what about farm bureau money that was suppose to be set aside? — Joe Higgins

I am the physician who testified in the first PBB contamination trial in MI. I also examined a number of exposed persons. My work is written up in my book, Chemical Exposure and Disease. My data are archived at the National Library of Medicine. —Janette Sherman, MD

I was born in 1959 in Flint, Michigan. My sister was born in 1961. We would have been in puberty at the time of the PBB contamination. My sister passed away from her breast cancer at age 50 and my breast cancer has returned after being diagnosed with it 4 years ago. I was tested for bromides and they were high. Breast cancer did not run in the family until this happened. The next 5–10 years will be very informative as those exposed during puberty reach menopause — then we can have a much better understanding of its impact. — Gail Massoll

About the series

Reporting: Mark Brush, Lindsey Smith, Rebecca Williams

Edited by: Sarah Hulett

Photography: Mark Brush

Site layout and editing: Kimberly Springer

Additional editing: Chrissy Yates

Program Director: Tamar Charney

The Environment Report

The Environment Report, hosted by Rebecca Williams, explores the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.

    Michigan Radio

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    Your NPR News Station. 91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit, 91.1 Flint, 104.1 West Michigan.

    The Environment Report

    The Environment Report, hosted by Rebecca Williams, explores the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.

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