By BRIAN BIENKOWSKI
Capital News Service
LANSING — For more than three decades, Michigan tracked the health of about 4,000 residents who ingested fire retardant chemicals that were accidentally introduced into the food supply.
The crisis occurred in 1973, when a flame retardant got mixed up with a cattle feed supplement, leading to widespread PBB contamination in Michigan.
The once-robust research project on polybrominated biphenyls, known as PBBs, also examined the health of the initial participants’ children.
But now the state is handing off the study to a researcher in Georgia – not because the health fears disappeared or because participants are chemical-free: The reason?
There’s no money.
David Wade, director of the division of environmental health at the Department of Community Health, said the research had received federal funding but money from Washington dried up about five years ago.
And now the department is spread too thin with other priorities, Wade said.
So until August, it will act as gatekeeper to the study’s participants as research and communication about PBB’s health effects shifts to Michele Marcus, a professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta.
Emory was chosen to take over the project because it is “the natural fit for who should continue the study,” said Angela Minicuci, a Community Health public information officer.
Marcus has been studying health effects of PBB for about 15 years.
PBBs were once produced at a Michigan Chemical Co. plant in St. Louis, Mich., and sold under the trade name FireMaster. The same plant, located between Lansing and Mount Pleasant, made a cattle feed supplement named NutriMaster.
Bags of PBB were accidentally sent to a Michigan Farm Bureau Services feed mill in early 1973. Before the mix-up was noticed a year later, contaminated livestock feed had been sent to hundreds of farms.
About 500 contaminated farms were quarantined. Also, the state killed thousands of animals and destroyed tons of animal feed and dairy products to keep the chemical out of the food system.
But people across the state were already contaminated, mostly at low levels. Residents of quarantined farms had the highest levels of the chemical and formed the base of participants for the now-scrapped Michigan Long-Term PBB Study.
Marcus first met some of those exposed to PBB last August when she was given a year to round up willing participants before the state “boxes up” its records, she said.
At the initial meeting, people were interested in understanding the results of PBB research, Marcus said, and even people who read Department of Community Health newsletters and other materials didn’t quite understand what’s known about the chemical’s effects.
She’s now seeking their consent to continue the long-term research, but it’s been difficult tracking down some of them because the state hasn’t kept records current due to a lack of resources. “There has also been a lot of migration from Michigan — some people we’ll never be able to contact,” she said.
Marcus has looked for health problems in three groups – those directly exposed, and the daughters and sons of those who were exposed.
No evidence points to long-term health problems in people who ate meat or drank milk contaminated by PBB, Marcus said. There have been more breast cancer cases than expected, but not enough to warrant the finding significant.
The most significant health problems were discovered in their children, Marcus said.
For example, daughters of those who ingested high amounts of PBB have had their period a year earlier than daughters of women with no chemicals in their blood. They are also more likely to have miscarriages.
Some sons of those who ingested high amounts of PBB suffered urinary system and genital problems.
Breast-feeding is one reason for such problems. “PBB is stored in body fat and breast milk contains a lot of fat content,” Marcus said. “PBB is actually 100 times more concentrated in breast milk than in blood.”
The risk of a health problem related to PBB depends on the extent of a person’s exposure, and such problems become more prevalent as the levels of PBB rise, Marcus said.
Those who are worried can have a blood check for the chemicals and discuss the findings with their doctor.
Even 39 years later, fear of PBB-induced health problems hasn’t waned, and such concerns drive the research, Marcus said.
“A common problem has been when people with a health problem that could be related ask a doctor, and the doctor says no,” Marcus said. “We want the cohort’s ideas, what they have noticed and what they think we should be studying.”
Her team has created a physicians’ guide with information on her research.
While still interested in people who directly ingested PBB, her research will now test reproductive function and hormone levels of their children, Marcus said.
Much of Marcus’s work has been funded by the same agencies that used to support the Department of Community Health study: the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Although long forgotten by the media and by people who aren’t directly affected, PBB is still important to research, Marcus said. Now after 15 years of going through Community Health, she will finally have direct access to those most integral for a successful study.
“It’s the people and patients who most often suggest and guide us to problems and what we should research,” she said.
U.S. manufacturing of PBBs ended in 1976.
Brian Bienkowski writes for Great Lakes Echo.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By BRIAN BIENKOWSKI