BY BRITTANY PIERCE
43 years after the public health disaster that came from the Velsicol Chemical Corp. in St. Louis, MI contaminating the state food supply, community members are still feeling the effects.
Many residents were exposed to polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB, when the company accidentally switched Nutrimaster, a cattle feed supplement, with Firemaster, a toxic flame retardant that poisoned several farm animals and a large amount of the population across Michigan.
By the time the mistake was recognized, it was already too late.
“The Velsicol plant mixed up fire retardants (PBB) with supplements meant for cow feed, and ended up distributing these all over the state of Michigan, which the cows ingested, farmers were directly exposed, and a majority of the people already ingested the products,” said Grace Erickson (’21).
Even though the Velsicol Chemical Corp. center in St. Louis shut down, the effects are still present in society today and the former site is now an EPA Superfund site because it is one of the most highly contaminated pieces of land in the United States.
Now, Alma students are getting directly involved with addressing the health problems that are still going on from this disaster back in 1973 by partnering with Emory University School of Public Health.
“The project that I am working on is a research piece for Emory University. They are studying many different effects that PBB has on the people of Michigan,” said Erickson. “There are many people involved in this, including Dr. Lorenz, the Healthy Pine River Group, the Emory research team, and many other officials and people of the community.”
The research involving Emory University has been going on since 2011, but the studies have evolved since then because PBB contamination can be passed on to offspring.
“They are doing a multigenerational study looking at the effects from the grandparents to the kids to the grandchildren,” said Maggie Patterson (’21).
“They [community members] have high levels of PBB in their blood and they continue to come back to this study throughout the years to get tested and these could’ve been factory workers or farmers or they could have even been community members who somehow got a higher exposure.
Now they’re doing a clinical study to test the effects of some medication that they are trying out. Because PBB tends to be stored in the fat, they’re trying to figure out a way to help get it out of the body,” said Patterson.
Even though the study is well established, Emory University is always looking for more people to get involved.
“They’re always looking for more Alma College students to help out because Emory likes having us help out. We help them get people from station to station and keep some organization and peace during the meetings.
“They also have us do confidentiality training because we handle files and so therefore we have to be trained for that. They typically do two or three events in the area around us that they would have us help out with every year,” said Patterson.
According to Alma students involved, this project is far more than a resume builder. “This experience has really shown me that health is a huge determinant of happiness,” said Erickson.
“It has also shown me that no matter how long I have to fight for something, to never give up. Whether this is a class, applying for Medical school, or just life in general. These screenings have given the community hope above anything. They have given the people solid answers, time to vent their concerns and time to ask questions,” she said.
It also provides them a new perspective on their prospective careers.
“I’m on the Pre-Med track and it showed me that I would to have some research still in my future and it exposes where there may be a gap between patients and their doctors if the doctors aren’t necessarily informed about environmental factors,” said Patterson.
“If a patient is experiencing a certain effect or certain symptoms but the effect that is happening is rare, looking at your patient’s history but also where they live and how things happening around them can have an impact on them,” she said.
Above all, Alma students are most concerned about getting answers to improve the health of community members who were effected, according to Patterson and Erickson.
“Hopefully one day soon these people can have some justice or they can have some of their negative health effects relieved,” said. Erickson.