Secrets Told on the Lagoon

It takes a while for essential moments of a trip to become apparent. After returning from Venice six weeks ago, images of standing in the bottom of a vaporetto with my friend Chris, crossing the lagoon from Torcello, have come occasionally to mind. Now I know why.

Early this morning I found a gasping Polyphemous moth deep in the back yard. It lay on the ground, its wings rising and falling as it tried to lift. A beautiful, large moth, wide as my hand, its light brown body flounced with white, and two huge eye spots staring from its lower wings. I helped it into my hand and released it into the air. It fell back. The best I could do, then, was to settle it in a tall stand of mint. When I couldn’t find it again, I knew our time together was over.

I don’t see my friend Chris often, though she may be the earliest friend I have in Minnesota. Our first husbands were medical interns together, and Chris coached me on breast-feeding. And I? What did I give her? Continuation, perhaps. A link with earlier years, and the best, almost unqualified support anyone can give anyone else. Since she has lived in Michigan for many years, we don’t see each other often, and there have been been long periods when we only exchanged Christmas cards. Now that we’re older, we try to see each other more often, knowing that time is precious.

So we took the chance to visit Venice together. She knew I loved the city and her grandson had told her she must see it. Sharing a large room together, in a former convent not far from San Marco, we came to know each other’s bodies more intimately. She’s had both breasts removed. I watched her dangle a wonderful padded bra then turn her back and put it on. It doesn’t matter if she wears it. She’s learned how to dress to mask herself as a no-breasted woman. But it was a mark of our ease with each other that she showed the bra to me, though not the scared flesh where the breasts had been.

We visited Torcello because I said we must. This magical island in the lagoon lies quite far from Venice proper. It’s magical because it’s largely unpopulated, wild and golden and studded with trees, with a canal of course, and rose bushes beside cafes, and several expansive, low-lying, ritzy establishments. The earliest inhabitants of Venice settled on Torcello and when malaria drove them away, they left behind their 11th-13th-century basilica which most visitors now come to see. It is the oldest remaining church in the archipelago, filled with dusty, golden light, and mosaics that curve into its dome and send the fixed stares of saints and the Madonna down on us below.

Returning across the lagoon to Venice, Chris and I stood in the shadowed bottom of the boat, our hands around a pillar. How we got started on the subject of her breast cancer, I don’t remember. But soon she was launched, talking about possibly being affected by a chemical called PBB. As the boat ploughed the gentle waves, she gave me a skeleton of a horrible truth. Between 1973 and 74, a Michigan chemical company unwittingly put PBB, a fire-retandant chemical, in bags that were shipped to feed mills where it was mixed with an animal-feed supplement. The cows that ate the feed almost immediately became ill–“gaunt and weak. Their hooves grew to ghastly proportions. Abscesses developed, and their hides went thick and elephant-like” (Robin Erb, Detroit Free Press).

Chris told me that milk, eggs, and meat for the state were soon contaminated by PBB. Eventually when the cause was identified, thousands of cows directly poisoned by the chemical, were shot. Many farmers lost their entire herds. Chickens, pigs, and sheep who’d eaten by-products from such cows were eventually also put to death. Burying this huge die-off of animals was not always done in ways to protect local water supplies or soil from contamination.

PBB is an endocrine disruptor–it causes cancers of many kinds but especially in organs like breast, thyroid, and uterus that produce or are affected by hormones. “The cows’ hooves were curved up like rocking horse bottoms,” I remember Chris saying. “They could hardly walk. And many calves were born dead.” We had talked about how breast and pancreatic cancer occurred within generations of her family–her mother had died of pancreatic cancer and her grandmother from breast cancer. Her sister had the gene for breast cancer, and later developed the disease. Though Chris didn’t have the gene, she had breast cancer, and for the first breast, a radical mastectomy. When it recurred two years later, she had the lumps cut out, chemo, radiation, and tamoxifen. Later when lumps also developed in the second breast, she got tired of having them cut out, and had the entire breast removed even though the lumps were precancerous.

In the semi-darkness of the vaporetto, standing together clutching the pillar, I felt overwhelmed and horrified by her suffering and courage, and by this environmental disaster, so insidious and unrecognized, so ugly in its manifestations for the cows who were the first to ingest the chemical, for the farmers who all of a sudden found their herds deformed, weak and ill, as if a malign genie had spread a poisonous but undetectable dust over the land. In many ways what happened was exactly like that–malign, incomprehensible, coming out of nowhere, and lethal.

Thinking about it, still makes my chest constrict and stomach hurt. Decades have passed. Michigan, which is not a wealthy state, has turned over the monitoring of people affected by PBB to researchers at Emory University, in Atlanta. Finally there will be a federal clean-up of the factory site where PBB was manufactured. Citizens who live in the small Michigan town near the former factory find dead robins in their yards every summer. The ground where the poisoned animals were buried is still itself full of poison..

And my dear friend? I consider her a lucky survivor. I think she does too. There is no direct evidence that her cancers were caused by PBB, but it’s possible that her children grew up drinking milk contaminated by PBB. She hopes they will continue unscathed. Many of the children born to farmers whose cows were directly affected with PBB, these children, and some of the farmers themselves, died what we would consider an early death–in their 40s from leukemia or 50s from lung disease or thyroid cancer. Losing a child, after losing a herd and thus a livelihood, seems to me such a burden of loss, grief, and anger as to be almost insupportable. It is hard not to feel that no redress will ever be enough for such toxic negligence. Only a hope for forgiveness.

  1. Patricia Barone

    Margot, Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention. 3M used to make a fire retardant, I think, or was it just Scotch Guard for raincoats. What a courageous woman, your friend Chris.

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