PBB Disaster’s 50th Anniversary to be Commemorated at Conference
ALMA — Scientists, artists, policy makers, and community members will come together at the Wright Leppien Opera House in downtown Alma on May 18-20, 2023, in commemoration of the Michigan PBB disaster, which occurred 50 years ago.
“The PBB Disaster at 50: A Conference to Commemorate and Learn from the Poisoning of Michigan,” will bring the critical lessons of the disaster back into public discussion and consciousness, with the hope it will inspire continued action to address long-term environmental and human health outcomes.
“It really can’t be overstated what a major crisis this was — not just locally, but across the state and even throughout the Midwest,” said Ed Lorenz, vice chair of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force nonprofit organization and a member of the conference organizing committee. “This became something that the Gratiot County area became known for on an international level.
“It’s imperative that we draw lessons from this mistake and grow to change in the future, because even though it was a mistake, it was predictable. It shows the dangers of cutting corners in business and environmental settings,” he said.
In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Company in St. Louis, Michigan, accidentally mislabeled, packaged, and shipped a flame retardant, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), to a livestock feed mill, where it was mixed into animal feed. Through the animals, PBB entered the human food supply and remained unnoticed for over a year. Despite the destruction of over 30,000 contaminated animals and food products, an estimated 8.5 million Michiganders had already been exposed. Researchers continue to identify grave health problem connected to the exposure 50 years later.
Among the activities planned for “The PBB Disaster at 50” are a tour of a farm that been quarantined as a result of PBB toxicity and a screening of the BBC film “The Poisoning of Michigan.”
Speakers include Dr. Elena Conis, historian of medicine, public health, and the environment; authors Aimee Medeiros and Sandra Eder; longtime Michigan State Representative Francis “Bus” Spaniola; Dr. Michele Marcus, lead scientist for the Michigan PBB Registry; and Dr. Larry Robertson, professor emeritus for the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Iowa.
Awards will be given to a group of nominated “PBB Heroes” who have assisted with cleanup or information in various ways and the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force — an EPA-recognized Citizen Advisory Group — will induct members of its hall of fame.
“You can see the incredible scope of the disaster in the diversity of participants in this conference: three campuses, the EPA, numerous citizens groups, and people from all walks of life,” said Benjamin Peterson, a lecturer of political science and history at Alma College and coordinator of the conference organizing committee.
“The disaster speaks to so many parts of our history and identity in the mid-Michigan area because agriculture and chemical industries were key reasons that people came here. In many ways, this conference will tell the story of this area, and I think it’s a very compelling story.”
“The PBB Disaster at 50” is funded by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council and support from Alma College, the Michigan PBB Registry at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, Central Michigan University, the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, the PBB Community Advisory Board, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Tickets, now available on a day-by-day basis for the conference, are free and for in-person participants only. There will be a livestream of the proceedings and recordings of sessions made available after the event concludes.
The Wright Leppien Opera House is located at the northeast corner of North State and East Superior streets in Alma. For more information, and to register for tickets, visit https://rb.gy/zvfdfw or visit the conference website https://tinyurl.com/PBB50thEvent.