LESSONS for adults and young people:

The human health and environmental problems arising from the operation of Michigan Chemical/Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis offer us three general lessons that should be learned far beyond the Pine River watershed.  Broadly, they relate to:

1. The Precautionary Principle,

2. Environmental Economics. and

3. Willful Disregard

Bernardino Ramazzini

Beginning with the concern with the human health consequences of the PBB accident, the community has repeatedly benefitted from the work and thinking of human health experts guided by the Precautionary Principle.  What do we mean by those words?  Briefly the Precautionary Principle means: caution should be followed in the introduction of new products or methods until the long-term impact on human health or the environment is known.

The community’s first contact with a modern advocate of the Precautionary Principle was when Dr. Irving Selikoff was asked to guide assessing the impact of the PBB accident on human health.  At the same time, Tony Mazzocchi, of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union that represented workers at the Michigan Chemical/Velsicol plant, was asked by local union leaders for help.   A friend of Dr. Selikoff, Mr. Mazzocchi was another advocate of precaution.  He and Dr. Selikoff often are identified as the “fathers” of occupational health policy in the U.S.

These leaders of the human health response to the PBB accident were not the first to be concerned with controlling the health risks of occupational danger.  Long-ago, the brilliant Italian physician, Bernardino Ramazzini, who lived from 1623 until 1714, identified occupational health problems and called for the precautionary principle. 

A few years after the PBB accident, Dr. Selikoff joined with Dr. Ceare Maltoni of the University of Bologna in Italy to form the Collegium Ramazzini, bringing together world experts on occupational disease and the need for the Precautionary Principle.  Several other experts who have become involved with helping us understand the human health consequences of exposures to Michigan Chemical/ Velsicol contaminants are members of the Ramazzini Collegium: Dr. Chris De Rosa, who delivered the keynote address at the Kenaga International DDT Conference and Dr. Brenda Eskenazi, the lead author of “The Pine River Statement” published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

When Dr. De Rosa delivered his address at the Kenaga Conference, he began with a reference to the wisdom of Bernardino Ramazzini.  If nothing else is taken from the lessons of the PBB accident, it should be to expect the precautionary principle to be applied to all new products and processes of production.  Dr. De Rosa also urged us to pay attention to the meetings, usually annually of the Ramazzini Collegium.  As the Collegium says on its website: “The mission of the Collegium Ramazzini is to increase scientific knowledge of the environmental and occupational causes of disease and to transmit this knowledge to decision-makers, the media and the global public to protect public health, prevent disease and save lives. The Collegium Ramazzini is independent of commercial interests. It advances scientifically based solutions to global problems in occupational and environmental health.”

Dr. Christopher De Rosa was the Director for Toxicology and Risk Analysis for the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances an Disease Registry.  Dr. Brenda Eskenazi is the Brian and Jennifer Maxwell Endowed Chair in Public Health and Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health.

Dr. Eugene Kenaga, for whom the Task Force named the 2008 International DDT Conference, which he wanted us to hold, was a long-time employee of Dow Chemical and as a young chemist during World War II in the South Pacific helped develop the use of DDT to fight malaria.  He believed in cautious use of DDT.  He later founded the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, which co-sponsored the DDT Conference.

Tony Mazzocchi at Work

Anthony ‘Tony’ Mazzocchi was an elected officer of the Oil Chemical and Atmic Workers Union, now part of the United Steelworkers.  President Richard Nixon credited Tony with having gotten the Occupational Safety and Health Act enacted in 1970.  He has been called the “Rachel Carson of the American Workplace.”  He is portrayed in the film Silkwood.

Dr. Selikoff

Dr. Irving Selikoff was the long-term occupational health pioneer.  He served as the Director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Division of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.  After his death, it was renamed the Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health.  Dr. Michele Marcus, who leads the PBB Registry team at Emory University worked for and with Dr. Selikoff


A second set of lessons from the experience with remediation of the local environment and restoration of public health apply to economics.  As with the Ramazzini legacy, an international organization has grown up to further economic learning from these experiences – the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE).   The U.S. section of the ISEE has published work on the economics of the Pine River region’s remediation.

See pp. 119-134 on Michigan Chemical

The ISEE was founded by Herman Daly, a former World Bank economist and professor at a number of leading U.S. universities, and author of pioneering work on “steady-state economics.”  The ISEE, especially in Michigan has been guided by the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Eleanor Ostrom on the protection of the ‘commons.”  Kate Raworth, at Oxford University has also contributed much insight into problems such as those in the Pine River watershed with her concept of “donut economics.” 

Kate Raworth’s Book

Of special relevance to the Pine River experience has been Eleanor Ostrom’s eight “design principles” for producing stable use of common resources, such as the water of the river, the lands shared in the community for housing and the air.  More important than helping one local community, the experience of St. Louis confirm the accuracy of what Dr. Ostrom identified.  To see a complete explanation of her principles, please read her Governing the Commons (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990)

We know that the behavior of Michigan Chemical/Velsicol was economically foolish from the long-term perspective of the community.  The company never paid in wages and taxes, even when adjusted for inflation, a sum equal to the Superfund clean-up costs.  And those cost computations do not factor in the ‘costs’ of human health consequences experienced by people exposed to the contaminants, especially PBB introduced into the food chain or DDT and other chemicals to which people in the region were exposed through, air, water and soil contamination.  How can we possibly estimate the ‘costs’ of a lost child or a shortened life or one made more unpleasant due to a health consequence of exposure.  Added to those missing ‘economic’ measures are the losses to the natural world, which can also have direct impacts on humans.  Perhaps the easiest way to understand the negative economic impact of Michigan Chemical/ Velsicol is the fat that the company only operated for 42 years in the watershed (1936-1978).  The clean-up has now lasted longer than the operation, and remediating the environmental and human health legacy will be continuing for many years into the future.

When the Pine River Task Force succeeded in its bankruptcy claim against upriver Oxford Automotive, the bankruptcy court award was based on an estimate of the lost monetary benefit from being able to carry on recreational fishing in the river.  Similarly, the residents of the region have lost something of incalculable value in not being able to freely use other natural resources.

As has been argued by globally respected economists such as Daly, Ostrom and Raworth, we urgently need a new way of measuring and regulating the economic impacts of irresponsibility such as that exemplified by Michigan Chemical.  Since, it appears some of the chemicals introduced into the environment by the firm can have genetic impacts on future generations of exposed people, the foolishness of economic assumptions that allowed the firm to operate as it did between 1936 and 1978 becomes crystal clear.    


A core lesson in the watershed is that claims, such as, ‘If they knew it was bad, they wouldn’t have done it,’ are a full distortion of the truth.  As soon as Michigan Chemical announced plans to open, without waste processing beyond river dumping, downriver people complained.  Perhaps worse, the contamination took place when peer reviewed scientific studies warned of the dangers of exposures to the products and processes of the companies.  In the section of the website, we provide copies of SOME of the many examples of complaints, media reports, and scientific studies.  Many more can be found if you check the books on the PBB accident identified on our resource page.

A recent book, Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World (New York: The Experiment, 22020) reviews the long history of taking responsibility for the world we leave to our descendants. One of the former Alma students involved in the Pine River project thinks Krznaric’s work is especially helpful.

The Good Ancestor UK paperback book cover.

Pine River Experience with “Bad Ancestors“: While many local residents and local, state and national officials have worked to control the regions contamination for the good of future generations, we have been plagued by many “bad ancestors” focused on short-term profits at the expense of future generations. It is important, therefore to undertand the long term struggles against pollution.

Below we not only show private expressions of criticisms of dead fish or river smells.  We include a variety of assessments from public officials and government expert as early as the mid-1930s. We begin with a link to a resolution unanimously adopted by the Saginaw City Council regarding Pine River contamination from St. Louis.

 saginaw City 1935 (pinerivercag.org)

That led to an investigation of problems on the Pine River by the only institution at the time capable of studying ecosystem degradation – The University of Michigan.

U of M 1935 study (pinerivercag.org)

Again, we know in 1941, 121 citizens in St. Louis, the community seemingly benefitting from the chemical lant jobs, complained of harm to the river.

Image of Front Page of Local Newspaper in 1941 about citizen complaints

Throughout the pre-PBB Accident era (1935-1973), repeatedly state environmental agencies documented contamination in the Pine River.  For example, in 1955, the Michigan Stream Control Commission reported on river contamination.

1955 River Study (pinerivercag.org)

Again from 1967 until 1970 the Water Resources Commission conducted a river assessment with much information on Michigan Chemical contamination (copied in 3 parts).

Mi Water Res com Pine River 1967-70 title page (pinerivercag.org)

Mi Water Res com Pine river 1967-70 pp to 8 (pinerivercag.org)

Mi Water Res com Pine River 1967-70 all other o (pinerivercag.org)

As part of the larger study, the water Resources Commission in 1967, produced a report on Michigan Chemical’s impact on the watershed.

Mi Water esources Com 1967 on MI Chem (pinerivercag.org)

The consequence of all of these reports is to prove there is overwhelming evidence the problems of Michigan Chemical were known and the public wanted action.

Ignored Human Health Concerns:

Knowledge of the dangers of the products of Michigan Chemical. Velsicol Chemical were documented and publicized.  One reason no action was taken in response to the known risks of the companies’ products was that they and their allies fought back with legal threats and lobbying at the highest levels.

As World War II ended multiple accounts appeared I the popular press of problems with DDT.  In 1945, the New Yorker, a major popular magazine, one of whose editors was E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) ran a story on DDT’s danger.  [See the included later link to a story about Gene Kenaga, later a Task Force member who long confronted DDT lobbyists).

New Yorker May 26 1945 & Kenaga (pinerivercag.org)

The year after The New Yorker story, another popular magazine, The New Republic ran a story about DDT’s dangers.

New Republic March 25, 1946 on DDT (pinerivercag.org)

These accounts in the popular press were supported by peer reviewed studies published in scholarly journals.  For example, The Journal of Pharmacology, published this study in 1947.

Jrnl Pharmacology 1947 (pinerivercag.org)

Two years later, the American Medical association’s Archives of Pathology published a study in 1949 showing the impact of DDT on dogs, but with obvious worry about the impact on human health.

AMA ods & ddt 1949 (pinerivercag.org)

At Michigan state University, ornithologist George Wallace quietly investigated studies of bird deaths after DDT spraying on-campus.  After he testified about his findings, agricultural interests in the state sought to have him fired.  See the description of what the university later admitted was harassment.

George wallace and DDT 1989 (pinerivercag.org)

Al these ignored warnings about DDT, and also a number of products of Velsicol, led to Rachel Carson writing Silent Spring, to be published in September 1962 by Houghton Mifflin, the old Boston publisher of quality books.  It also was to be serialized in the summer of 1962 by E.B White’s New Yorker.  Here are a variety of documents including letters from Velsicol’s attorneys threatening Houghton Mifflin with a liable suit if the book was published.  The New Yorker received similar threats.  In addition to these documents, if you watch the PBS American Experience documentary on Rachel Carson, there are discussions of the Velsicol threats with Paul Brooks, the former editor at Houghton Mifflin and friend of Rachel Carson. (some of these are poor quality images, originals at Rachel Carson Papers at Yale Univ. archives of this quality)

Carson 1962 & Velsicol (pinerivercag.org)

After Houghton Mifflin defied the threats and published Silent Spring, there was a campaign of pesticide producers to attack the book in reviews.  The American Medical Association ran a negative review. Likewise, Chemical and Engineering News (CEN) attacked Carson.  Here are copies of those reviews, but also a few letters to the editor of CEN defending Carson.

Silent Spring book reviews (pinerivercag.org)

In addition, Velsicol and Shell Chemicals teamed up to pay for a ghost-written book, supposedly by Jamie Whitten, the long-serving Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, That We May Live.  To assure it was a ‘best seller’, the two companies not only paid for its publication but bought eh copies produced and donated them to politicians and public libraries – pioneering a strategy later used by many public policy campaigns.  Here is a picture of the cover of That We May Live.  Please don’t buy a used copy.  It is propaganda.

If you want more information on disinformation campaigns such as this, check out Naomi Oeskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).  You can check their website for more media: Merchants of Doubt – How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Please learn these lessons and teach them to future generations!  If you had exposure or other involvement with PBB, we would like to hear your stories. Please check out the Michigan PBB Registry and the PBB Oral History Project.