We’re Listening

By Dr. Brittany Fremion

In fall of 1973, as the leaves began to take on brilliant hues that defied name, a dairy farmer in southwestern Michigan noticed something wrong with his herd. Milk production plummeted and his heifers exhibited strange health problems, such as watery eyes, patchy skin, and loss of appetite. They aborted calves and those that survived would not eat. Over the course of nine months, with much unease and persistence, the farmer, Rick Halbert, discovered the cause of his herd’s ailments: a fire retardant, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), had accidentally been added to his livestock feed at a local coop instead of a nutritive supplement. But it was not just Halbert’s animals that had fallen ill. Other farmers across the state noticed similar problems with their herds, as well as other animalsswine, sheep, chickens, rabbits, horses, quail, ducks, and geese.[1] Farm families—men, women, and children—started to notice changes in their health, too. Many of their concerns and observations were dismissed by peers or public officials, even as information about the tragedy unfolded. A community member recalled, “they were hurting. And nobody listened to them.”[2]

What Halbert discovered was “a massive exposure,”[3] one of the largest chemical contaminations in U.S. history. PBB had chemically entered the human food chain via farm products—eggs, pork, poultry, beef, and dairy goods—exposing millions of people. When the company that manufactured PBB, Velsicol Chemical (formerly Michigan Chemical), closed its St. Louis facility doors in 1978, it left behind a heavily contaminated community.[4] The Michigan Department of Public Health (now Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) initiated research into acute health effects in 1974 and established a long-term study in 1976 with a consortium of federal agencies. Research into the long-term health effects of PBB exposure is ongoing.[5] Yet, few Americans know about the Michigan PBB contamination or its legacy.

The Michigan PBB Oral History Project documents the history of the PBB mix-up through a series of audio-recorded interviews with community members—farmers, chemical workers, consumers, public officials, researchers, and activists. Each interview is transcribed and audited. Then, a copy of the audio file and transcript are returned to each participant for feedback and clarification. Once interviewing concludes, the oral histories will be donated to the Museum of Cultural and Natural History at CMU and will be preserved in a special research collection made available to community members, researchers, and educators, with the hope that they will be used for educational purposes. These oral histories establish an important and permanent community presence in the historical record. The interviews are emotional in a way that documentary evidence is not—or cannot be. Oral histories are personal. And they are powerful.

Much of this work would not be possible without the support of CMU students, whose involvement also makes this project special. From April 2018 to the present, six undergraduate and five graduate students from history, cultural resource management, and education programs have spent nearly 2,000 hours conducting, transcribing, and auditing interviews, attending community events, and preserving donated personal papers. To date, we have conducted more than 40 interviews with 50 individuals, amounting to almost 60 hours of audio recordings. The students—Lea, Nikki, Candy, Carolyn, Tom, CJ, Emily, Anna, Elizabeth, Luke, and Logan—learned about oral history theory, methods, and ethics in their time working on the project. They also learned a great deal about the ways PBB contamination changed individual lives, communities, industry, and research, and thought deeply about why this history matters.

For instance, Candy, a graduate student in history, observed that “these stories stick with you.” She was moved to tears in a panel presentation this spring, wherein she shared insights from interviews with farm family members. Anna, an education major, wrote, “history, to me, is no longer just about places and ideas you can read about in a book, but something much more personal.” Logan and Elizabeth, education majors, have asked how the history of the PBB mix-up can be made part of Michigan’s educational standards and plan to bring their experiences from the project into their own classrooms.

These students have shared in the pain and sorrow expressed by many community members, as well as celebrated moments of joy and triumph. They have heard the voices of those who, for a long time, felt unheard. Most importantly, they have been good stewards of the past, which seems ever present, as the past is never in the past, especially when chemicals are involved. Their work matters. And the stories they have helped to preserve will make in indelible mark on future listeners. That is pretty incredible.

Many thanks to the community members who have graciously shared their time and memories, whose stories have forever changed us, and to those whose stories we have yet to document.  

We’re listening.

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The Michigan PBB Oral History Project is a collaborative endeavor inspired by community members and researchers at Emory University, which maintains The Michigan PBB Registry, the long-term health study. The oral history project is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, with additional support provided by the Museum of Cultural and Natural History, Department of History, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Clarke Historical Library, and Office of Research and Graduate Studies at CMU, as well as research partners at Emory University and the University of Michigan.

[1] Michigan Department of Agriculture, “PBB Contamination Status Report,” June 16, 1975, in Dr. Alpha Clark Papers, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University (accessible by request).

[2] Patrick Muldoon interviewed by Brittany Fremion in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 10, 2018 for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project.

[3] Frederic and Sandra Halbert, Bitter Harvest: The Investigation of the PBB Contamination: A Personal Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 158.

[4] After closing the St. Louis, Michigan, plant in 1978, Velsicol estimates it paid the state $38.5 million to clean-up. The total cost to date is $480 million and includes Pine River sediment remediation, a radioactive site, and three Superfund sites. The Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force formed in 1998 and mobilized community members to oversee EPA clean-up efforts. It is one of the most successful EPA-designated Community Advisory Groups (CAG) in the country. For more information, visit their website: http://www.pinerivercag.org

[5] According to recent studies, 6 out of 10 Michiganders still have elevated levels of PBB in their bodies (higher than 95% of the U.S. population). For more information about findings and research, visit the Michigan PBB Registry: http://pbbregistry.emory.edu


Brittany Fremion is an environmental and oral historian at CMU. She is the project director for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, a proud member of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, and new board member for the Michigan Oral History Association.