GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Fifty years ago, a shipping error sparked an environmental and economic disaster across the state of Michigan. Instead of a harmless feed additive, Michigan Chemical accidentally sent bags of highly toxic polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) to a Farm Bureau processing facility in Battle Creek.
The white, clumpy compound used in fire retardant looked eerily like magnesium oxide, a common feed additive, and workers couldn’t tell the difference, mixing the chemical into thousands of pounds of cattle feed.
The feed was far from the only thing that became contaminated. With its strong bonding characteristics, the PBB stuck to pretty much anything with which it came into contact, including the feed mixers and other facility equipment. That meant feed processed in those mixers, even months after the original contamination, were tainted.
The ordeal cost the state and the Michigan Farm Bureau millions of dollars, forced many farmers out of business, resulted in hundreds of thousands of slaughtered animals, and passed the contaminant along to virtually every Michigander.
Without the persistent investigation of one West Michigan farmer and his allies, it could have been even worse.
“We did not just have a problem,” that farmer said when he confirmed his animals were poisoned with tainted feed. “We had a disaster.”
MEET RICK HALBERT
Rick Halbert grew up in a farmhouse. His grandfather and father were both farmers, working and living off of the land in Bedford Charter Township, northwest of Battle Creek. Instead of taking over for his dad, Halbert pursued the sciences, earning a master’s degree from Michigan State University and working for Dow Chemical as a chemical engineer.
But eventually the farm life came calling. Halbert and his young family moved back to Calhoun County, buying 260 acres and a farmhouse just down the road from his father. Working together, the Halberts quickly built up a sizeable farm. Within three years, the two doubled their number of milking cows from 150 to 300, becoming one of the largest milk producers in southwest Michigan.
His scientific curiosities and his knowledge of chemistry never left him. It proved crucial in the years to come.
Investigative journalist Joyce Egginton carefully detailed Halbert’s struggles in her book, “The Poisoning of Michigan,” walking through how the shipping mistake happened, how it was eventually discovered and the long road to recovery for a decimated farming industry. Even in the 1970s, she said the farm industry was already merging with science, requiring an extensive knowledge not only of animals but how to treat the land and how to maximize an investment.
“When Rick eventually returned to farming, his qualifications as a chemical engineer were not at all irrelevant. He was just a little, only a very little, ahead of the times,” Egginton wrote. “And when mysterious symptoms appeared in his cattle, his scientific knowledge proved crucial.”
The Halberts were longtime customers of the Farm Bureau, buying feed and other necessities for years, especially to help sustain their animals through the winter months.
Rick Halbert used Dairy Ration 402 — or DR-402 — for his cows. It was an enriched formula of corn and other ingredients to include the right balance of protein and other minerals that cows need. However, because of the low magnesium content in his land, Halbert asked the Farm Bureau to start adding magnesium oxide to the recipe.
Magnesium is a mineral that cows need naturally, especially to protect them from certain illnesses, including “grass tetany” and “wheat pasture fever,” a potentially fatal disease. Magnesium oxide has other benefits, as well. The compound works as an antacid in a cow’s stomach, which helps the cow produce more milk and with a higher fat content, both of which translate to more money for the farmer.
According to Egginton, Halbert originally bought the “mag oxide” separate and would mix into the feed himself. But since he was so satisfied with the product, he recommended the Farm Bureau change its recipe to incorporate it. Halbert’s cows had no problems with the updated DR-402 in the fall and winter of 1972. But when he moved back to the feed heading into the fall of 1973, he started noticing weird symptoms.
Halbert told Egginton that he specifically remembered the morning of Sept. 20 when he started to realize something was wrong. The cows were “strangely lethargic” and had little appetite. Milk output that day was normal — around 13,000 gallons — but the symptoms intensified in the coming days.
By Oct. 8, his cows were producing only 8,000 gallons of milk per day. Halbert was facing a fiscal crisis. Something major was going wrong, and despite his family’s generations of experience in dairy farming, he had no idea how to fix it.
Confident in his husbandry practices and the feed switch being the one major change in recent weeks, Halbert suspected the problems stemmed from the feed. His gut instinct was right, but it took him months of investigating to rule out alternatives and find the proof that his cows were poisoned.
Right away, Halbert started making calls to local veterinarians to see if there was something he missed. He also reached out to the Farm Bureau, asking about the “improved” DR-402 formula.
“He asked if someone at the Battle Creek plant could have made an error in reading the chemical formula, mistaking manganese (Mn) or molybdenum (Mo) for magnesium (Mg),” Egginton wrote. “Rick Halbert’s question was tantalizingly close to uncovering the truth, if only someone had stopped to do some investigating.”
One thing did stand out to Halbert — the symptoms: matted hair, thickening skin, emaciation, diarrhea and a sharp rise in pregnant mothers losing calves. They mirrored the symptoms for bovine hyperkeratosis, the name eventually applied to the mysterious “X-Disease” that popped up across the U.S. in the early 1950s. Researchers were eventually able to point to a chemical substance in lubricating oils used on farm machinery. Some animals were accidentally poisoned because the oil was used to lubricate feed mixers. Other cattle realized they liked the taste and would lick the oil off of the machines and door hinges. But those oils hadn’t been used in years, and Halbert hadn’t used any new products that would point to it.
Now desperate, Halbert continued to work the phones, reaching out not only to veterinarians and cow experts, but also state officials and state agencies. His vet, Dr. Ted Jackson, ended up becoming a major ally in the fight to find the problem.
Jackson noticed other strange symptoms. The cows had runny eyes and had stopped chewing their cuds. The udders on cows who had recently calved were shrinking. And because the cows seemingly refused to eat the tainted feed, they had lost a significant amount of weight.
Jackson helped push Halbert to exhaust all of the alternatives. Was it a contagious disease? Was the issue caused by moldy corn, tainted by the notably wet fall? Was it heavy metal poisoning? They worked through the problems, eliminating potential causes one by one.
“But none of the suggested explanations really fit the symptoms, and Jackson was as baffled as (Halbert),” Egginton wrote.
Something else also stood out: Where did all of the rats go? Quipped Halbert: “It was as if the Pied Piper had come.”
Rodents are a common farm pest. Halbert said it’s “almost impossible” to get rid of them, no matter how hard a farmer tries. So Halbert and Jackson conducted an experiment. They found one particular rat’s nest in a crawl space. The two men threw about 10 pounds worth of feed in the crawl space. A week later, the rats were gone.
It was another piece of evidence that the feed was connected to the problem, but still not hard proof. So Halbert and Jackson continued looking. After more pushing, the Michigan Department of Agriculture finally agreed to run some tests. The agency ran an experiment on 10 mice. Five were fed regular grain and five were fed only DR-402. The mice that were fed DR-402 “ate cautiously” and seemed to have little appetite. All five were dead within two weeks. The MDA repeated the experiment, adding more protein to the DR-402 to ensure the mice weren’t starving to death. Once again, they were dead within two weeks.
After learning the news, Halbert told Egginton his “spirits shot up.”
“We now had a lot of circumstantial evidence and some direct evidence,” he said.
In the years following the disaster, Dr. Donald Grover, the MDA veterinary diagnostician who ran the experiments, highlighted how ill-equipped the agency was to tackle a problem on scale with the PBB disaster.
“We tried to do everything that Halbert requested,” Grover told Egginton. “But we had exhausted all that we were capable of doing in our laboratory.”
Grover filed a request with the Federal Department of Agriculture to have the feed analyzed. But that would take time. And for Halbert, time meant money; money that was dwindling in supply.
FIGHTING FOR HELP
On Dec. 28, 1973, Halbert once again spoke with representatives at the Farm Bureau. He told them about the continued issues with his cattle and the mice experiment.
“From now on, this is no longer just our problem. It is your problem, too,” he told them.
But the Farm Bureau wasn’t yet convinced it held any responsibility, even accusing Halbert of poor husbandry practices. It’s hard for a farmer to imagine a stronger insult. Still, without the exact known cause, the Farm Bureau was able to stand pat.
Veterinary toxicologist Dr. Allan Furr was assigned to a project at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Ames, Iowa. He told Egginton he was “instantly intrigued” by the case. Furr split his batch of feed in two, using one half to search of specific toxins that could have tainted the feed. The other, he used for experiments, feeding to hogs and steers. The experiments were just as grisly as the others.
After three days of being fed only DR-402, the hogs stopped eating completely. Only after mixing in new grain with the DR-402 did the animals start showing any signs of an appetite. He continued to dilute the mixture to prevent the pigs from starving to death, but it didn’t matter. Within three weeks, all of the pigs were euthanized to stop their suffering.
Furr’s team was also the first to run a sample through a gas liquid chromatograph. It is an extremely complicated and expensive piece of equipment that essentially breaks down compounds and sorts out the material molecules by size, showing exactly what elements are in a given sample. Grover’s lab at the MDA didn’t have one, but APHIS did. Whether it was sheer luck or not, Furr’s team made a major discovery.
Furr said he ran the chromatograph test to look for signs of pesticides. After about 15 minutes, Furr knew if there were pesticides involved, evidence would be reflected in the readouts. But they hadn’t, so he decided to break for lunch. Instead of shutting down the machine, his team let it run. When they returned, the graph paper that spelled out the results was piled up on the floor. While they were gone, the results had come in. There were clear signs of some foreign material, one that Furr had never seen before. They ran the test again a few days later on a new sample and got the same results.
Halbert had the new mystery evidence. But as soon as he received it, he lost his expert. Furr was forced off of the case. Halbert recalled the frustrating phone call.
“Furr sounded bleak. He was sorry, he had been taken off the project and could do no more,” Egginton wrote. “No one had been assigned the job in his place. It hadn’t been relegated to the back burner. It wasn’t on any burner at all. … If Furr had been allowed to continue, and the university’s mass spectrometer test had been made, any competent chemist would have identified the compound as PBB — little known though it was — within days.”
Still determined, Halbert’s search continued. After countless calls and letters, Halbert focused in on the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Of all of the USDA scientists and toxicologists, Halbert was eventually put in touch with Dr. George Fries. Not only did Fries have specific experience working with dairy cattle, but he had also run experiments on PBB.
On April 19, 1974, Halbert finally got his answer. A low-resolution test run on a mass spectrometer at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation found that the mystery compound was a form of bromine. He quickly called Fries and told him the news. Within minutes, and a detailed description of the graph readings, Fries had tracked down his old files.
Two years earlier, Fries had run an experiment with PBB to test the safety viability of the compound in fire retardants. He fed small amounts of PBB to chickens and then fed the chicken manure to cows to see if there were any ill effects. There weren’t, but only because they were such small doses of PBB. Fries estimated Halbert’s cattle were exposed to PBB levels 1,000 times more than those in his experiment.
Halbert was elated. This part of the mystery was solved. But Fries had the answer to the news question, as well. When asked, Fries told him which company manufactured the PBB: Michigan Chemical.
Halbert presented his findings to the Farm Bureau. Not only did he know what contaminant made its way into the DR-402, he also likely had the source. Finally, he expected relief. He expected compensation. He expected the Farm Bureau and the MDA to take the lead on addressing the PBB disaster.
But the fight was far from over.
This story is the second of a four-part series. You can find the first part of the series here.