Friday, May 10, 2013

MMDHD and the Velsicol PBB Contamination

I think most people who live in this part of Michigan know the story of the Michigan Chemical Corporation (later Velsicol Chemical Company) that operated in St. Louis from the 1930s-1970s.  The factory manufactured DDT and PBB, as well as salt and other chemicals.  In terms of jobs, those were good times for Gratiot County, but some products were toxic, and the factory—now defunct—skirted environmental stewardship and regulations.  Tons of DDT was dumped into the Pine River (now an EPA Superfund Cleanup Site).  In 1973 PBB was accidentally shipped to a Farm Bureau plant in Battle Creek and mixed with livestock feed.  It was fed to animals which our citizens ultimately consumed.  It was the largest chemical contamination in the history of our country.  The story is well told in the book “The Poisoning of Michigan” by Joyce Egginton. (Norm Keon donated a copy to our library in 2010 and encourages all of us to read it.)

This incident is personal for the Mid-Michigan District Health Department. Some Department employees or relatives worked at the factory or lived in the immediate neighborhood, including our Medical Director Dr. Graham, who had a summer job there while he was in college.  Like other residents of the area, these people live with uncertainty as to how their health or the health of their loved ones has been affected.
One of the first things I asked when I came to the Department was what our role was in the mitigation and monitoring of the after-effects of the PBB contamination. I was saddened to learn that—although our Environmental Health unit wanted to be actively involved—there was little we could do. We had no funding for testing or counseling or any of the things a more-well-endowed Department might have done.  All we could do was continue to be a witness to this tragedy.  Our epidemiologist, Norm Keon continued to attend the Pine River Citizen Superfund Task Force.    

It was through the Task Force that Norm met people from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, including Dr. Michele Marcus. She and her colleagues want to study the long-term health effects of PBBs.  And so they are collaborating with MMDHD’s Epi team to start a small project and go after a bigger grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health (NIEH).  MMDHD is going to do blood draws from 20 exposed people, including MMDHD employees who were exposed. Emory will use the analysis of those samples as data for a proposal to the NIEH for a major study, which they say has a good chance of being funded. At last, we have something we can do to try to help our community recover.
This all makes me think two things: First, even if all you can do is hang in there with your community and be a witness to its big health challenges, do it. Norm’s patience and vigilance has borne fruit after years of waiting. Second, the best possible outcome of all this would be to get a big NIEH grant, help Emory do a definitive study, and find: absolutely nothing; to have conclusive proof that the nightmare is over.