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Lessons learned on Indiana farms about 1970s PCB contamination scare

Lessons learned on Indiana farms about 1970s PCB contamination scare
My personal connection to the industry-changing 1970s PBB dairy contamination case in Michigan

This is the second part in a series of uncovering how agricultural standards have tightened and why they have tightened over the years, plus where they may go in the future.

Last week we pointed out lessons learned from one of the true tragedies in American agriculture. It occurred in 1973 when a toxic chemical, PBB, was accidentally included in dairy feed instead of the compound that was supposed to be in the feed. It became the basis for Bitter Harvest, a TV documentary-type movie in 1981.

It's estimated that some 8 million people in Michigan who drank milk from affected cows may carry PBBs in their body, and many believe that estimate is low.

Secret assailant: Cows just like these were doomed when they ate silage and were found to contain PCBs that flaked off the wall of silo coatings.

Soon after the PBB fiasco in Michigan was uncovered, health officials began testing milk for PBB and similar compounds elsewhere. Milk from a milk hauler's load going into Kroger Dairy in Indianapolis tested positive for another toxic chemical, PCB. In those days, there were still several small, 30- to 120- cow dairies in central Indiana. The milk hauler picked milk up from several farms each day.

I know about this because my father still operated a 40-cow dairy. His milk hauler was notified there was a problem, and he notified each of his suppliers, before knowing which farm, or farms, was supplying milk tainted with PCB.

Related: You should thank PETA and HSUS for what they've done for agriculture

Talk about your sleepless nights! My father, then in his late 50s, knew that if he was forced to shut down, it would mean great economic hardship, and perhaps bankruptcy. Plus he had developed good genetics in a commercial herd for the time, and would have to start from scratch if he could even start again. There were no answers, just questions.

Your mind plays tricks on you during the waiting game. My brother and I were worried because we helped with the dairy, and were concerned for my parents' welfare. At the time we had no clue what PCBs were, either.

As it turned out, dad's milk, when they sampled it separately, was clean. It wasn't the source of PCBs. He could breathe a sigh of relief.

However, the farmer I had worked for during my senior year in high school and for several summers, wasn't as lucky. His milk was positive for PCB. His herd was the one contaminating the load.

Lessons learned >>

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It was still a different time back then. Milk inspectors were often considered the enemy, at least by my former employer, although not by my dad. The first person to show up to talk to him about PCB from a government agency was of a different race, and in the 1970s in parts of rural Indiana, right or wrong, that still didn't sit well with some rural people.

In a nutshell, instead of cooperating, he balked, and the more he balked, the harder the authorities came down on him.

Testing finally confirmed the PCB entered the cows' diet by flaking off walls of a concrete-stave silo that the original silo builder had coated with a substance to prevent leakage as the silage fermented. Other farms with the same silos were also identified.

It did mean the end of my former employer's dairy career. The cows were condemned, and removed. He shut down the dairy.

Anything we don't understand creates fear. Fear sometimes leads to irrational behavior. Those are two lessons from the incident that I remember.

As painful as this was, I can only imagine what losing your entire herd and knowing your family's health had been sacrificed must have felt like for those farmers in Michigan affected by the PBB mishap.

We can't change history. I'm sure the person who dumped the wrong bags into the feed mixer wished they could have taken them back out a thousand times. No one knew when the silo was coated that it contained a substance that would someday flake off and cause health risks to cows and humans. We don't know what we don't know, and we can't change the past.

However, we can learn from it. Next week, part three of this series: What things today do some people think might be the PBBs and PCBs of our generation down the road, and is there any basis and science behind their thoughts? Stay tuned.

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