Living with PBB: Years of dumping poisons a town - w/video
Living with PBB: Years of dumping poisons a town
September 24, 2012
By Robin Erb
Detroit Free Press Medical Writer
Second of two parts Part 1: Decades later, PBB contamination suspected in illnesses and deaths | Toxin's long-term effects on health still aren't clear to experts | Photos: The Aftermath of the PBB Crisis
St. Louis, Mich. -- The sun sets through the clouds on a late summer afternoon, and a wind brushes through wildflowers on a 52-acre site wrapped by the Pine River, softening the sounds of children in a playground nearby. But the dead robins that drop in Teri Kniffen's yard around the corner and the signs scattered in town bear the evidence of unseen hazards, an alphabet soup of toxicity.
They are the result of Michigan Chemical -- the plant responsible for a shipping mix-up in 1973 that set off one of the largest agricultural disasters in U.S. history. Accidentally mixed into cattle feed, the flame-retardant polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB, led to the deaths of tens of thousands of cattle and other farm animals and it ended up on the dinner tables of nine out of 10 Michiganders.
Michigan Chemical closed as a result of the catastrophe in 1977, but only after dumping tons of PBB, as well as the now-banned pesticide DDT and other toxins, at the site and at the nearby Gratiot County Landfill.
Today, the plant's environmental footprint remains: DDT in dead birds; PBB in the Pine River; pCBSA, a by-product of DDT, in the drinking water.
"It's horrible. It's what we're left with," said Kniffen, a mother of two grown daughters whose front yard is littered each summer with robins poisoned by DDT. The birds are particularly susceptible because they eat worms from the toxin-laden grounds.