Lessons from the Field: Reporting on 40 years of PBB Contamination

Published on
January 24, 2013

This was a story that began a year and a half before I ever wrote the first word. It was first brought to my attention in July 2011 that Michigan had a toxic history. Nearly 40 years ago, due to human error, cattle feed had been mixed with a flame retardant chemical called PBB instead of being mixed with a nutritional supplement. The feed was then fed for aproximately two years to cattle, pigs and chickens all over the state.

I knew two things, I needed to bring this story back out into the forefront to help recruit those affected to participate in the ongoing health studies, and I would need way more than the traditional two minutes allotted for most of my stories. It was through the National Health Journalism Fellowship Program that I was able to accomplish both goals and produce the documentary "Tainted Michigan: 40 years of PBB Contamination." [You can watch the 20-minute documentary on Youtube.]

Prior to attending the July fellowship conference. I had secured much of the needed background information and interviews. However, I never knew how much work lay ahead of me. The waves of overwhelming feelings washed over me as regularly as the daily ocean tides.

My first obstacle came in securing a freelance photographer. While my news director agreed to give me as much support as he could, our small staff would not be able to handle dedicating a photographer to this project. A good freelance photographer would cost me $1,500- $2,000 a day and I would need at least two days of shoot and a week of editing. I had to be resourceful and in doing so reached out to a friend at another station who agreed to committ to the project.

With that task behind me, I began to schedule the interviews. They were all set until about a week before when two backed out because they just didn't want to relive what they had gone through. The first mistake was perhaps not fully understanding the depth to which the affected people felt used and forgotten. So with days left before shooting the interviews I had to re-group, fortunately it work out and the remaining personal experience interviews were more than what I needed for the documentary.

Our first shoot day lasted 13 hours and required driving all over half the state of Michigan. Our second day of shooting was a little shorter at just eight hours. With the the hardest part done, I set the fellowhship project aside for a month. November sweeps was coming up, and I would have to committ to my full-time health reporting job for the next 30 days.

When I was able to return my attention to the fellowship project, I began gathering additional information which the state of Michigan was more than willing to share, I was pleasantly surprised. The hardest was part confirming if and how much of a settlement was every given to the affected farm families. The now decades-old documents were in the national archives in Chicago. It took 2 1/2 days on the phone with multiple people and an additional $150 to get that one number I felt I needed for the end of the documentary. It was a question that anyone watching would have, and I wanted to answer it.

The documentary "Tainted Michigan: 40 Years of PBB Contamination" aired on December 29, 2012. In addition, a public viewing to raise awareness was also held to help reach out to even more affected families in hopes they would become part of the ongoing study. Plans to re-air the documentary are currently in the works.

In addition, I've been able to create a buzz within our strong social media network in Grand Rapids. I've recieved a lot of emails asking for more information. How to measure the impact the documentary  is a bit difficult.  But I do believe I was able to accomplish the most important goal of my fellowship project -- to bring awareness to a devastating agricultural disaster that is still affecting the health of Michigan residents 40 years later.