Four decades after polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), a dense, flame-retardant toxin, was accidentally dumped into a Michigan cattle feed supplement, Detroit Free Press reporter Robin Erb looks into the aftermath of what she calls “one of the most catastrophic agricultural disasters in U.S. history.”
Today, despite decades of cleanup efforts, the contamination lives on in the sites of mass burials of livestock who were exposed to the toxin and thus slaughtered and, as Erb writes in the second part of the series, in the massive superfund site that has grown up around the property of the company responsible for the fatal mixup in the first place. The exact scope of the disaster is unknown, even now, but PBB appears to have contaminated soil and water supplies, and poisoned animals across the state.
With the series, Erb first discusses the effects of PBB and related chemicals, then goes a step further and investigates exactly why clean-up efforts have failed. In a sidebar, she explains the complexity of reporting on the health effects of contamination, perhaps best expressed in this quote:
“That’s environmental epidemiology for you. There are limitations in the science,” said Lorraine Cameron, an epidemiologist in charge of the Michigan Department of Public Health’s long-term health study of about 4,000 Michiganders who were acutely exposed to PBB.
Erb uses anecdotes and, where possible, statistics, and highlights past mistakes as well as current efforts. In the process, she also proves that, especially where environmental contamination and long-term health issues are concerned, it’s never too late for a follow-up story.