ST. LOUIS, Mich. (WOOD) — For most of Michigan, the PBB Disaster that started in 1973 ended as quickly as it began. Within a few years, the uncertainty around Michigan meat and dairy had faded away and the industry started to bounce back.
But in St. Louis, near Alma in Gratiot County, where the disaster began, it is still unfolding, still a part of everyday life. And we are still learning about its impact.
In 2023, 50 years after the start of the PBB Disaster and 45 years since the Velsicol Chemical plant shut its doors, the city still lives with an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in its backyard.
Leppien Park nestles alongside the Pine River, just south of the city’s main drag. If you look through the swings and past the merry-go-round, you can see EPA crews and equipment working on the contaminated soil. There are no temporary warning signs telling anglers not to eat the fish. They are included in the city’s permanent signage, knowing that the warning will be in place for years to come. And even that is only technically necessary. While squeezing in a few casts during his lunch break, a fisherman from nearby Ithaca said the Pine River has been polluted for so long that everyone in the area knows not to eat its fish.
The riverside plot of land that housed Velsicol Chemical had been an industrial zone for more than a century. Since the mid-1800s, the land was used as a lumber mill, an oil refinery and a salt plant before it was converted into a chemical manufacturing facility in 1936.
Michigan Chemical — later merged with Velsicol — made all sorts of different chemical compounds, including varieties of polybrominated biphenyl and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Most people know it better as DDT, an insecticide that was used for decades before it was banned in 1972 after scientists concluded high exposures can cause many serious environmental and health impacts and is a possible carcinogen.
‘WE KNOW IT’S HORRID STUFF IN THERE’
Not only were the plant workers unknowingly being exposed to dangerous levels of chemical contaminants, but the facility was also leaking pollutants everywhere, notably into the Pine River, harming communities that are miles away, let alone the people who lived next door.
“You would hear stories, people complained about the screens of their windows that would rot within a year from whatever was being accumulated from emissions from the chemical plant. Cars that sat outside, the finish would get ruined after a very short time. It’s kind of crazy to think about seeing that evidence, yet there are people working inside the plant and they don’t need to wear face masks or protective gear,” Ed Lorenz told News 8.
Lorenz, the vice chair of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, moved to the area in 1989 to teach at Alma College, a stone’s throw away from St. Louis. He hadn’t heard of PBB before moving there and learned that it was a taboo subject. Even after the plant was demolished and capped, Lorenz was still hearing whispers that things weren’t right.
“(The EPA) had demolished the plant onsite in the early 1980s and buried it and put a fence around it, and it was a Superfund site, one of these highly toxic sites to be cleaned up. But it wasn’t really cleaned up, it was just buried,” Lorenz said. “So we started to investigate and we couldn’t believe the stories we heard from people in town about what had been done, the mistakes that had been made.”
Jane Jelenek, who chairs the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, says the community knew the contaminants were still a threat even after the EPA had moved on.
“A lot of people said, ‘Now, wait a minute. We know it’s horrid stuff in there. What about leaking down into the groundwater?’ We were assured that there was a natural layer of clay at the bottom of it that would contain it. Of course, it didn’t,” Jelenek told News 8.
Lorenz and a couple other professors from Alma College ran some preliminary tests and found results strong enough to grab the EPA’s attention. EPA agents returned and conducted tests of their own, realizing the contaminants they thought were contained are still making their way beyond the plant site.
“A guy from the EPA called me in the summer of 1997. Now, this was still a dormant site as far as any of us knew. Nothing was going on. It looked like we were cursed with this for the rest of our lives,” Lorenz said.
After a public hearing that drew massive crowds, the EPA planned its return and started remedial work on the site in 1998 — work that is still ongoing.
LEARNING NEW HEALTH IMPACTS
Last month, Alma College held a three-day conference to recognize the 50th anniversary of the PBB Disaster. Several experts and historians came out to Mid-Michigan to talk about what happened, what we have learned in the last 50 years and the research currently being done to investigate how PBB impacts human health.
Dr. Michele Marcus was there. She is a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at Emory University in Atlanta and is the lead scientist on the Michigan PBB Registry. The project, which started in 1976, was originally conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and funded with federal money. When the MDHHS wanted to shut down the project in 1990, Marcus and her team at Emory were able to convince the National Institutes of Health to continue funding the project and the MDHHS to hand the project over to them. Marcus still makes regular trips to Michigan, holding forums with study participants to discuss the latest findings and keep interest in the project alive.
Marcus explained how PBB operated within a human body. When a person is exposed to PBB, the chemical compound is stored in fat tissue. That’s why some of the worst PBB toxicosis symptoms were seen in pregnant cows — ones under higher levels of stress that would burn fat and release the contaminant. In humans who ate meat or dairy contaminated with PBB, that chemical was often being handed down through breastmilk, which has a high fat content. That means even children that were never directly exposed to PBB can carry a measurable amount of the contaminant.
Marcus’ primary findings show that PBB can have a major impact on the endocrine system, saying it essentially acts as additional estrogen.
“We found that the daughters of women who were highly exposed had their first menstrual period earlier. And the boys who were exposed in the womb had more problems and abnormalities of the anatomy of the urinary genital tract. Subsequently, we learned that the daughters, when they were of reproductive age, were more likely to have miscarriages and that was related to their mother’s PBB level,” Marcus told News 8. “And that’s why it makes sense that it might accelerate female maturation and slow down male maturation. Both men and women make estrogen and testosterone, and it’s the balance between the two that determine secondary sexual characteristics.”
The study’s latest focus is on how PBB can impact a person’s DNA, even generations later. Marcus says its clear that PBB does not mutate a person’s genetic sequence, but it can affect how certain genes are expressed.
“You start from a single cell. You’ve got your DNA and then the cells change, and they differentiate into heart cells, stomach cells, liver cells. And each cell type has a gene expression pattern. So genes are turned off and turned on depending on the function of the cell,” Marcus said. “This is kind of a new field, which is looking at the impact of chemicals or substances on gene regulation, not on the genes themselves. … We found that PBB does impact this methylation pattern and, in fact, that’s part of the evidence that it acts like estrogen because it affects this methylation pattern in the same way as estrogen.”
IS THERE AN END IN SIGHT?
Fifty years after a simple shipping error triggered an environmental and economic disaster across Michigan, will the problem ever be resolved in St. Louis? Will we ever truly know the full health impacts the Velsicol Chemical Company had on its employees and community? There’s no clear answer, but the EPA does believe the Superfund site is nearing the finish line.
Last month, the agency held a closed tour of the St. Louis Superfund site, explaining how crews are breaking apart the chemical bonds within the contaminated soil and transporting it offsite to a certified landfill.
Tom Alcamo, the EPA’s remedial project manager in St. Louis, has been working on the site since 2008. He said a surge in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021 has sped up the timeline.
“I think if we can continue to get funding, I think we could be done by 2026. We still have a few more components to complete, but overall, if the funding continues, we can accelerate this,” Alcamo told News 8.
From there, most members of the community are advocating for the land to be turned into a park.
“(The property was) recently transferred to the State of Michigan Land Bank. So the land bank owns it and we will be working with all of the stakeholders, including the city of St. Louis,” Alcamo said.
He believes it makes the most sense to keep the land in a municipal position because it would make things easier for the EPA to keep a closer eye on the property.
“There are a lot of details we need to work out, particularly for the final remedy, which is an engineered cap over it and how the redevelopment fits into that cap, making sure maintenance is done, all of those things,” he said.
Jelenek said she is counting on the EPA to stay true to its word and see the project through. She is encouraged by the latest steps and surge in funding because she knows money has been a major obstacle.
“Over time, again and again and again, (funding) came up,” Jelenek recalled. “And I remember saying at one meeting, ‘We don’t care about the money. We don’t care how much it costs. We just want it done right.’”
WILL ANOTHER PROBLEM ARISE?
Marcus’ team will continue to investigate the health effects caused by PBB. But PBB is one of hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds that have been created and used. And from DDT to PBB to PFAS, time and again, experts find negative environmental and health impacts long after the products have been brought to market.
Elena Conis is a professor with University of California-Berkley’s School of Journalism and Department of History with an emphasis on environmental history. She said with the way chemicals are tweaked and manufactured, it’s only a matter of time before a new one triggers a major crisis.
“Since the second World War, we have created and put into circulation thousands and thousands of chemicals. One estimate I was reading recently was somewhere upwards of 350,000 synthetic chemicals,” Conis told News 8.
The harsh reality is that we simply can’t determine whether one chemical compound is safe because we can’t study how any one compound would interact with another.
“You’re not exposed to one chemical at a time. We use multiple chemicals and we use them in environments in which they come into contact with other synthetic compounds and different environmental conditions and climactic conditions. All of these things are variables. And all of these variables determine the effects that these chemicals will have on our bodies in the short term and the long term,” Conis said.
She continued: “We are always playing catch-up because we were never going to be able to fully understand what all of these chemicals are capable of doing to our bodies and to our health.”
Like DDT in the 1960s, PBB in the 1970s and several others, PFAS is the chemical compound under the most scrutiny right now. Beyond PFAS, the next major chemical disaster is likely unfolding right now. It remains to be seen where and how it will unfold. But when it does, hopefully state and federal agencies are better prepared to handle the matter.
Dr. Irving Selikoff, a revered doctor who led the first investigations into the human health impacts from PBB, spoke with Joyce Egginton for her book “The Poisoning of Michigan.” He said the driving force behind his work was to set a standard, so that there would be an example to follow the next time something like the PBB Disaster occurred.
“We are going to have more environmental emergencies like this,” Selikoff lamented to Egginton. “My responsibility is to develop the intellectual capacity to act as a fire brigade, but we must come to the fire faster and faster. We can only work effectively if people sound the alarm rapidly and do not wait until the flames go through the roof before they pull the lever.”
This story is the final installment of a four-part series. You can find the rest of the series here.