I met someone today who provided me with an education about something I should have learned about in medical school but didn’t. She is a woman born in the 1970’s in Michigan. Her grandparents were farmers in the thumb area in Michigan and suffered exposure to polybrominated biphenyl or PBB. PBB was a toxic flame retardant that accidentally was placed in cattle feed causing one of the largest accidental chemical poisonings in the western world. The toxic flame retardant was called “Firemaster” and was accidentally substituted in the cattle feed for “Nutrimaster” which was a cattle feed supplement that boosted a cow’s milk supply. The effect this had on cattle and other livestock was devastating. The animals developed neurotoxic effects and deformities and had to be killed. The humans who consumed these animals became sick too, and it affected multiple generations. The problem with PBB is that it continues to affect people in Michigan 45 years later. You may think this is an isolated problem in Michigan, but it was not. The distribution of the products from the PBB affected livestock where distributed to an estimated 9 million Michiganders in 1973 and 1974. Researchers say that many in Michigan still have elevated blood PBB levels from consuming contaminated eggs, milk, butter, cheese and meat from this time and that an estimated 6 in 10 tested in Michigan today have higher levels of PBB than the national averages.
PBB stays in the body fat for decades and mimics the effects of estrogen. The PBB stores get past down to children through breast milk and affect multiple generations. The offspring of women exposed to PBB are known to experience reproductive health issues and thyroid problems. Men develop urinary and genital system problems. Women are believed to have increased rates of miscarriages among daughters of mothers exposed to high PBB levels, possibly as high as 35%. Emory University in Georgia has taken over the research of the effects of PBB and will continue to follow the children and grandchildren that are affected. The long-term effects of this chemical are poorly understood and unrecognized by most doctors which may result in misdiagnosis of illnesses and chronic medical problems that persist and affect multiple generations.
I can’t help but question why, as a doctor educated and trained in Michigan, I never heard or was never taught about this devastating event that occurred within arms reach of where I lived, grew up, was educated and trained. Why did it take me 20 years as a doctor for a random person to educate me to an event and the long-term effects of such an enormous catastrophe in our state in my lifetime? Why is it no surprise that the events that have occurred in Flint, Michigan have also been diminished in the eyes of our leadership? The similarities are striking between lead in the water in Flint and PBB in the food supply and soil and groundwater of Michigan in the 1970’s.
This is an example of why I appreciate the vigilance of individuals and organizations who are willing to look out for the health and welfare of individuals and our communities. We have very few of these people and organizations remaining in our country it seems. We seem to value less regulation, but this is an excellent example of the carelessness and disregard for human and animal life that can occur.
We, therefore, need those who are willing to look out, speak up and organize real change that can help us to avoid the casualties we may experience in loss of life, health and liberty that comes from these unrecognized catastrophic health events.
Next Generation Choices Foundation, 501c3, public charity, more widely known as “Less Cancer” is just such an organization. Founded by Bill Couzens, its purpose is to help educate and aid in awareness about health and environmental issues that impact our health. The organization’s goal is to protect at-risk populations by information and policies to reduce the incidence of cancer in all people. I do not know of any organization so even-handed in its sincere desire to help humankind. I ride next weekend in a bike ride from Flint to Traverse City, Michigan in order to support this organization in its efforts. Please support me in this endeavor to raise funds for education and intervention by donating Less Cancer. I firmly believe that if there are issues in my backyard that I do not know about, there are in yours as well. We need all the help we can find to preserve the health of our children, grandchildren and planet.
As a Doctor in Michigan, Why Wasn’t I Taught About the Effects of PBB? was originally published in Less Cancer Journal on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.