Friday, September 2, 2016

The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton

“I don’t think the governor was an uncaring man.  He believed what his advisors told him.  He was hoodwinked by his own people.  Then he was in such a deep trap, how could he pull himself out?”

“As for the people of Michigan, they got the information too late.  If they had known they were being poisoned they would have risen up in indignation but when they eventually found out they had already ingested the stuff.”

No this isn’t a story about the lead in drinking water crisis that is currently happening in Flint Michigan.  The Poisoning of Michigan covers an environmental disaster that happened forty years previously.  “Although it remains one of the most widespread chemical contaminations this country has every experienced, it is also the most underreported disaster I have known in a long journalist career punctuated by reporting on disasters.”

Rick Halbert was a successful chemical engineer that gave up his engineering career to take over the family farm.  When his cows suddenly sicken, he suspects the new feed he has been getting from the Battle Creek Feed Mill.  Officials at the mill assure him that all is well, but his cattle keep getting worse.  Through Rick’s dogged determination, the contamination is found.

But that is not the end of the story.  Through gross incompetence on all levels of the government, the contamination has spread through dairy herds, chickens, pigs, and crops that were grown on land that manure was spread on.  No one understood the contamination and its effects, worse yet, the Farm Bureau and State Government in Michigan wanted to keep it under wraps to not ruin Michigan’s economy.  And thus, Michigan’s population was slowly poisoned in the 1970’s and the poisoning has not ended in current days.  The poison, PBB, binds to fat in humans and doesn’t disappear out of the system.  Because it bioaccumulates in the fat of humans, it is passed on through breast milk from mother to child.  Even now, 80% of Michiganders have it in their system.  Health effects include cancer, strange skin rashes, and stomach ailments.

Farmers with low levels in their herds could find no help.  Even after destroying their sick herds; they were told there was no financial help.  With low levels, they were able to sell their herds to market if they chose and the poisoning would continue through the food chain. It was frankly depressing to read about.

As an environmental engineer who grew up right where this took place right before I was born, I was very disturbed that I had never heard of through school, from family, or at college.  Indeed, it was covered up so effectively that most major reporting on it was from out of the country, like in Great Britain, which is where the author of this book is from.  It made me wonder about my own family.  Do I have PBB in my bloodstream?  I was born right afterwards, but my mother could have passed it to me.  Did I pass it to my children?  It would be great if you could be tested and educated on whether you should be breastfeeding your children or not.

Egginton’s writing was superb and supremely engaging.  The book has a new forward from 2009 as well as a great afterward on the subject.  I brought this camping with me over the fourth of July and my friend Gretchen couldn’t stop reading it whenever I left the book laying around. Gretchen first clued me into this story through an article on Facebook.  She also let me borrow the movie, Bitter Harvest staring Ron Howard, from the 1980’s that basically tells Rick Halbert’s story.  It was engaging and disturbing just like this book. I keep thinking about this book. It was a great read and the message was an important lesson about how easily our food chain can be contaminated.  I wish this message was out in the public more.

I bookmarked about every page of this book with one favorite quote or another.  Here is just a sampling of a few:

“Yet the Love Canal crisis affected only about 660 families occupying 36 city blocks, while Michigan’s contamination affected an entire state.”

“I have not forgotten the anger I felt in 1976 when Michigan’s Department of Public Health declined to advise new mothers whether or not to nurse their babies – this after 96 percent of random samples of breast milk from Michigan women showed the presence of PBB.”

“…discovered that PBB was ten times more toxic than PCB, causing severe liver damage.”

“My own family doctor looked me in the eye one day and said, ‘Are you sure you are not poisoning these children?’” – Carol Curtis, Farmer’s Wife

“If my husband was a cow they would have killed him.  They would have sent him to Kalkaska and buried him, because the PBB in his fat was over the tolerance level.” – Betty Motz, farmer’s wife.

“There was the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the governor, our elected officials covering up what two corporations were doing to the people of Michigan, telling farmers to sell sick cows to the public to save themselves financially.”

“This experience has made bigger people of us, he said, “We can better appreciate the frustrations and hurt of those who are regarded as second-rate citizens.  For a long time I could not understand the racial unrest in this country, the student disorders of the late sixties.  Now I know what happens to a person who is stripped of his dignity, why he becomes unruly.” – Garry Zuiderveen

Overall, this crisis was disturbing and fascinating to read about.  What is sad is that a lot of the lessons learned through this crisis have not been applied to modern crisis such as Flint.  The government is not equipped to help large scale health complaints of citizens.  But as in this crisis, it does take dedicated citizens to sound the alarm in order to find ways to solve the problem.  In the 1970’s the problem was covered up in order to not hurt the economy nor the Governor’s office.  This was similar to the modern Flint crisis where the government wanted to save face and covered up mounting evidence.  I hope more people read about the poisoning of Michigan in the 1970’s and think about the vulnerabilities in our food supply and how we can help this problem before we have another mass poisoning.

Do you have any superfund sites close to where you live?  Do you know how to find them?  Where you effected by the PBB crisis?

Book Source:  I purchased this book from

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  1. Laura, this sounds exactly as you describe it, as a disturbing yet fascinating book. Thank you for an excellent review! I don't know of any superfund sites near to my home. Have a terrific weekend.

  2. Check out this link to look for local superfund sites. My students are always disturbed by what they find!