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The Flint Water Crisis is Not Without Parallel in Michigan History

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Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping knowledge and intention secret…. In so far as it can it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.

— Max Weber, Essays in Sociology.

In the days, weeks, and months following a disaster people feel uncertain about real and perceived risks. The parties directly involved a disaster as well as other organizations such as public agencies, governmental bodies, corporations, the media, and environmental groups release a cacophony of information and disputations that the affected population and the general public see as conflicting and confusing. In the process victims and the general public struggle to gain credible sources of information in an attempt to make sense of an event and unpack the truth in order to assign, meaning, blame, and responsibility as well as develop coping strategies and effective remedies. This informational uncertainty can also result in the lack of an effective response between responding governmental agencies on all levels as witnessed in the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan

In the midst of these uncertainties public agencies either directly involved in the disaster or in response to the event, often adopt public relations strategies and policies that attempt to create uncertainty in order to reassure and downplay a disaster thus creating a vortex of uncertainty. Such tactics not only manipulate the circumstances surrounding a disaster but science as well. This process serves to disrupt our public regulatory system, thereby undermining our system of governance and as in the case of the Flint disaster, making citizens more vulnerable to environmental health risks (Button G. 2010.

This climate of amplified uncertainty has been, as the Flint tragedy continues to unfold, an ongoing essential characteristic of the narrative surrounding the crisis. For example, at the onset of the crisis state officials argued, as other officials in previous disasters around the nation, that what the residents of Flint were perceiving, as a crisis was merely an event of no long-term consequence.

What Michigan bureaucrats and state officials did when faced with the Flint water crisis, they did what officials have done for decades. They did what their counterparts did in Japan when methyl mercury was released in industrial waste water in Minamata damaging fisheries and poisoning the residents of fishing hamlet, as did Japan’s later day compatriots when faced with the Fukushima nuclear disaster that destroyed rice farms and leaked radioactive water into the Pacific and threatened fisheries, what the officials in Lombardy, Italy did when faced with a toxic cloud of dioxin that poisoned nearby farms and sickened residents, what BP officials did when the Gulf oil spill harmed one of the richest fisheries in the world, they did what officials did in the wake of the TVA ash spill in Tennessee when a coal ash impoundment collapsed spewing 5.4 million cubic yards of hazardous ash into the Emery River, what officials did in response to the West Virginia Elk River chemical spill that contaminated the tap water of 3,000 people, they did what officials and bureaucrats did that bind all these unrelated tragedies together: they downplayed the risk, they denied culpability, at times they deceived the affected populations and thwarted the attempts of regulatory agencies. Other U.S. parallels also exist such as the iconic stories of Love Canal N. Y. where toxic waste was associated with stillborn births and Woburn, MA where contaminated city water wells created a cluster of childhood leukemia. However, one need look no further than the State of Michigan to find a crisis that on some levels has a chilling resemblance to how officials acted during the Flint water scandal.

The story of the Michigan PBB disaster, long a mainstay of my environmental health policy curriculum, provides us with a compelling exploration of the role of downplaying and denial in the midst of a public health crisis. It is a story that forty years ago seized the nation’s attention and has as many twists and turns of mind-baffling decisions as the present day crisis in Flint.

In the early 1970s the state of Michigan faced an environmental health crisis when the highly toxic chemical PBB, developed as a fire retardant, was accidentally introduced into agricultural feed that ultimately resulted in the deaths of thousands of cows and the pervasive presence of the highly toxic chemical polybrominated biphenyl in both milk and meat and affected the health of Michigan residents. Medical researchers concluded that the entire population of Michigan, some nine million people, was found to have measurable levels of a carcinogen in the blood of Michigan’s citizenry. The presence of which at the time was considered a severe threat to pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. Decades later it was found that the greatest threat to the exposure of PBB was in breast milk when researchers discovered that PBB is 100 times more concentrated in breast milk than in the food chain.

Some of the nation’s top chemical manufacturers considered PBB to be too risky to manufacture because of the chemical’s likely chronic toxicity. Their reluctance however did not deter Michigan Chemical Company who, based on test results from a private lab, decided the chemical posed no real threat and dismissed the hesitancy of major chemical manufacturers like Dow and DuPont (Michigan Chemical Company later became Velsico a corporation which over the years has been involved in a number of toxic scandals around the nation).

For well more than a year state officials failed to effectively intervene. The Michigan Department of Agriculture issued a statement early in the crisis that stated that there was no need for concern for public health risks. The director of the department went so far as to state the situation, was pretty much under control. Newspaper accounts of the potential threat of PPB were less reassuring when they reported that Ann Arbor physician Dr. Thomas Corbett’s (who assumed a whistleblower role somewhat similar to present day Virginal Tech’s Marc Edwards) warned that the chemical maybe far more serious that state officials believed at the time. Four decades later researchers from Emory University confirmed his fear when they found PBB to be a hormone disrupter that to this day continues to threaten public health. The researchers tested 850 people and found that 85% of them had PBB in their body and even more worrisome that the chemical has to date affected three generations. Among their findings were women with high exposure to PBB have an increased chance of breast cancer. Equally disturbing, daughters of women with high exposure are more likely to experience a miscarriage. The study also discovered that men with high exposure are at greater risk of having thyroid problems.

Despite the emerging threat to the state’s cattle industry state officials were reluctant to acknowledge PBB as a cause of the cow’s illness. As the crisis continued unabated farmers were warned that if they contacted the Federal Department of Agriculture about their concerns it would only create a problem. In an attempt to minimize public alarm the Michigan Department of Public Health stated that one relatively small study showed there was little or no difference between the affected and the control population. Later the state’s health department was criticized for viewing PBB as more of an agricultural rather than a health problem.

The crisis reached a major turning point when one of Michigan’s largest supermarket chains announced they would not sell any of the state’s food products contaminated with PBB. As negative publicity increased the livelihood of farmers was severely jeopardized forcing some farmers into mortgage foreclosure and the loss of their family farms. Eventually, in order to allay fears and gain control of the crisis 500 farms were quarantined and more than 13,000 cattle were euthanized and buried in mass graves.

Republican Governor William Milliken was slow to respond to the crisis and among other her things vetoed a bill that the state legislature had unanimously passed to provide financial relief to the affected farmers. The governor later met with defeat when after two years of his reluctance to lower the PBB guidelines to a minimum detectable level his own Scientific Advisory Panel recommended the reduction.

While the specificities of the crisis are different from than those of the current crisis in Flint there are some disturbing similarities about the behavior of public agencies that should give us pause and in the most optimistic scenario provide public and private officials with valuable lessons about what to do and not to do as a crisis unfolds. Much of the uncertainty and harm of the present day disaster in Flint could have been averted if officials were aware of the pitfalls of their predecessors.

Gregory V. Button is a former faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and has been researching and writing about environmental health and disasters for over three decades. He is the author of Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe (Left Coast Press).

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