Tag: PBB

Déjà Vu: PFAS are Latest in Long Line of Failed Chemical Policies

Photo: Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center

By Dave Dempsey

The discovery of toxic per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in many Michigan locations, the fear and concern these chemicals have stirred, and the difficulty posed to government officials and the public on how to respond feel familiar to those residents 50 and over. As the baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

PFAS are just the latest symbols of failed chemical policy in a chain reaching back to World War II. That policy has caused disease and death, ruined landscapes and waters, and cost taxpayers scores of billions of dollars. And still politicians haven’t learned.

A Look Back

A look back at Michigan’s history of dealing with chemical crises illustrates the point:

  • Mercury – When fish from the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River were found to have alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury in 1970, the state had to shut down the Lake St. Clair fishery until it completed an exhaustive effort to trace and control the sources. Although much reduced, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources continue.
  • DDT – After the state banned most uses of toxic DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in 1969 for its effect on fish, wildlife, and human health, it also had to ban several replacement chemicals in succeeding years.
  • PCBs – In 1971, investigators found surprisingly high levels of toxic PCBs in Michigan water bodies, including the Kalamazoo River. This led to a ban on the chemicals in the mid-1970s.
  • PBB & PBDEs– When toxic PBB, a flame retardant, was accidentally mixed with cattle feed in 1973, government responded slowly and the entire Michigan food chain was affected. Chemical companies replaced PBB with compounds like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were subsequently found to be toxic to fish, wildlife and people and were banned or phased out.

    There are many more examples, the result of a policy that treats chemicals as though they have constitutional rights like people, “innocent until proven guilty.” It also treats them one at a time.


    “We’re playing chemical whack-a-mole,” says Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor. The Ecology Center has been working to develop chemical policy reform for years and has successfully championed initiatives such as Michigan state government’s Green Chemistry program. The program’s objective is to foster use and development of new chemicals and chemical products that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances while producing high quality products through safe and efficient manufacturing methods.

    The price of a piecemeal approach to chemical policy can be measured not just in damage to human health and the environment, but to taxpayer pocketbooks. Between the commencement of state-funded toxic cleanup program in the late 1970s and today — a 40-year period — Michigan citizens have shelled out more than $1.5 billion to handle cleanups of messes created by private parties. Created by everyone from small businesses to corporate giants, these toxic sites have become the public’s problem because many of the businesses involved have gone bankrupt or have chosen to contest their responsibility.


    What can we do about this problem? We need a new national chemical policy that requires full testing and safety evaluation of chemicals before they are introduced to the market and to our air, water, and bodies. Although this is common sense, chemical manufacturers have successfully resisted these reforms through the political process.

    Meuninck says legislation passed and signed into law by former President Obama in 2016 has the potential to help.  Key provisions include:

    • A mandatory requirement for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines;
    • Risk-based chemical assessments;
    • Increased public transparency for chemical information; and
    • Consistent source of funding for the EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law.

    “These are important changes, but they’re only as good as the EPA that’s supposed to implement them,” Meuninck said.  “Otherwise, it could go horribly wrong.”


    A potential model for a new U.S. policy is the European Commission’s 12-year-old REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation. REACH shifts the burden of identifying chemical hazards, means of mitigating hazards, and managing risk from government to business.

    Among other things, REACH:

    • Places responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances.  Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, and to register the information in a central database.
    • Calls for the progressive substitution of the most dangerous chemicals (referred to as “substances of very high concern”) when suitable alternatives have been identified.

    “One of the main reasons for developing and adopting the REACH Regulation,” the Commission says, “was that a large number of substances have been manufactured and placed on the market in Europe for many years, sometimes in very high amounts, and yet there is insufficient information on the hazards that they pose to human health and the environment. There is a need to fill these information gaps to ensure that industry is able to assess hazards and risks of the substances, and to identify and implement the risk management measures to protect humans and the environment.”

    But the European approach is far from becoming U.S. policy, despite the best efforts of skilled, effective public interest groups like the Ecology Center. It is difficult to say what chemical crisis might prompt needed change here at home. That change is badly needed — without another crisis coming first.

    Dave Dempsey is the Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW

    Have We Learned Our Lessons from PBB?

    Michigan cattle contaminated by toxic PBB in 1973 were slaughtered and buried in landfills.

    A story in the Detroit Free Press last week revived memories of one of the nation’s worst chemical disasters.  It happened in Michigan 45 years ago.  And researchers are still trying to figure out what the legacy is for human health.

    Sometime in May or June of 1973, the Michigan Chemical Company accidentally shipped a fire retardant with the brand name of Firemaster to Farm Bureau Services, a supplier for thousands of Michigan farmers, in place of Nutrimaster, a cattle feed containing magnesium oxide.  Firemaster was a brand name for PBB, used to reduce the flammability of plastics and electrical circuits.  Customers incorporated Firemaster in, among other things, auto dashboards and casings for telephones and hair dryers. 

    The mistake apparently happened at a time when Michigan Chemical ran out of preprinted bags and hand-lettered the trade names of the two products in black.  The similarity of product names or even smudging of the letters was all it took to make the first link in a disastrous chain of events.

    Farm Bureau Services sold the mislabeled feed to, among many others, dairy farmer Fred Halbert of Battle Creek.  Halbert purchased 65 tons and after one week of feeding it to his cows in the fall of 1973, noticed the animals were sick.  They lost appetite, lost weight and produced 25 per cent less milk.  When Halbert stopped feeding the Firemaster pellets to the cows, they showed signs of recovery. 

    In October 1973, the state Department of Agriculture’s head diagnostician inspected the herd and at first suspected lead poisoning.  When tests for lead proved negative, the department sought help from Michigan State University and laboratories in Wisconsin, Iowa and New York to isolate the contaminant in the feed.   Not until May 1974 did the department determine, with help from Halbert’s son Rick, a chemical engineer, that PBB was the poison.   The department then tested feed and farm products across the state.  In the first six weeks after the identification of PBB, the state seized 621 tons of feed, quarantined 388,000 chickens, destroyed 13,000 tons of butter and cheese, and imposed a quarantine on 34 dairy herds with 4100 contaminated animals.  By 1975 the state had quarantined more than 500 farms and condemned for slaughter over 17,000 cattle, 3,415 hogs, 1.5 million chickens, and 4.8 million eggs.

    Before the controversy died away, PBB spawned intensive coverage by the national news media, a made-for-TV movie, a special episode of a popular network drama, and bitter charges of government and industrial coverup and incompetence from the affected farmers and families.

    Manufactured for only five years, PBB was so new and poorly-understood that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not even set a safety standard for the chemical in food until after it was determined to be the source of Michigan’s previously mysterious farm scourge.

    Dennis Swanson, an employee of the Department of Natural Resources, inspected the facility that produced PBB not long after its mistake was exposed.  A plant executive told him the company had been monitoring its inventory carefully.  But upon entering the building, Swanson spotted what looked like gravel covering the floor, a material that had literally fallen through the cracks from the second floor of the building.  “I scooped it up,” he said, and took it back for laboratory analysis. It turned out to be pure PBB.   Swanson also took three samples of water from the Pine River, which flowed past the plant, and captured some catfish.  When analyzed, they all tested positive for PBB. 

    The Company’s negligence was causing two environmental disasters simultaneously.  Locally, PBB – and, it was later discovered, DDT – smothered the bed of the Pine River for miles downstream, and the plant site itself was seriously contaminated. 

    The attention of state officials, the national news media and Michigan citizens was concentrated on the fact that PBB had entered the state’s food chain, entering the body of anyone who drank milk or ate chicken or beef from the affected farms. Millions of citizens took PBB into their systems.

    But what were the health effects of PBB?

    Scientists knew almost nothing about this angle, since the chemical had entered commerce so recently.  It was clear that some dairy herds were severely affected. 
    As a precaution, the state ordered the slaughter of the most highly-contaminated cattle, hogs and chickens.  Burial of the PBB-tainted animals touched off another controversy.  The burial finally went ahead, but only in the teeth of local resistance.

    In an age when other issues were commanding public attention and chemical manufacturers had spent considerable sums trying to remake the image of their products, falsely reassuring messages about PBB’s impact on human health were passed along in the 1980s and 1990s by the same news outlets that had trumpeted PBB as a catastrophe in the 1970s.

    Largely through federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state for more than two decades maintained a study group of over 3,500 persons from the most highly exposed farm families in the state.  Researchers reported in 1995 that women from the group with higher levels of PBB in their blood had an increased risk of developing breast cancer.  A second study published in 1998 revealed higher risks of digestive cancer and lymphoma among members of the group with higher PBB blood levels. A third study suggested that girls born to women who had the highest levels of the chemical in their blood reached menarche six months earlier than those whose mothers had been less exposed.  This raises the question of whether PBB’s effects may include damage to reproductive health in the second or later generations of the most exposed families. 

    Tragically, some of the chemicals that replaced PBB in commerce also proved to be a threat to the environment and human health and have been banned or are being phased out. Known as PBDEs, these chemicals have been shown to persist in human blood and tissue and may pose a variety of serious health impacts.  

    Our regulatory system has repeatedly allowed into commerce chemicals that threaten our health.  Last week’s PBB story is a reminder of how such misguided policies can have lasting, multigenerational impacts that could be avoided through precaution.