On the other side of the country, about half way down the Florida Peninsula, near Tampa, Polk County in the early 1850s was a center of the cattle-raising industry. Fifty years of work, thought, and the application of modern scientific agricultural methods had combined to produce fine herds of purebred registered Brahmas and healthy pastures for them. Besides its flourishing cattle business, Polk County had as well a growing citrus industry. As the livestock and citrus prospered off the land, so did the farmers and growers.
Between 1953 and 1964, however, an estimated 150,000 acres of cattle land were abandoned, and 25,000 acres of citrus groves in the county were damaged. Truck crops were lost, and the commercial gladiolus industry in an adjacent county was blighted. In the seven-year period between 1953 and 1960, the cattle population of Polk County dropped 30,000 head.
“Around 1953 we noticed a change in our cattle. They failed to fleshen as they normally did. We put them in our best pastures and used all known methods to fatten. Worming, mineral drenches, changing pastures did not improve the condition. We watched our cattle become gaunt and starved, their legs became deformed; they lost their teeth. Reproduction fell off and when a cow did have a calf, it was also affected by this malady or was a stillborn.” Thus did a former president of the Polk County Cattlemen’s Association describe the onset of a condition in his cattle that was diagnosed by veterinarians as mass fluoride poisoning. The source of this fluoride poisoning was traced to gas and dust emissions spread by wind from the stacks of the many phosphate-processing plants near the grazing lands and citrus groves.
Almost 75 percent of the nation’s commercial supply of phosphate comes from mineral stores underneath Polk and adjacent Hillsborough County land. After World War II more than a dozen plants sprang up in this area to process the phosphate ore into triple super phosphate. High temperatures in the processing cause fluorine and/or fluorides to be released into the atmosphere, to be scattered by the winds to the forage land and the citrus groves, where they are deposited and absorbed.
In the citrus groves, the entry of fluorine into the leaves is indicated by a characteristic pattern of discoloration or a lightening of the normal dark green, which is caused by the destruction of the chlorophyll content of the leaf upsetting the metabolism of the plant. In severe attacks, the leaf is actually killed – burned to a brittle and dark brown condition. Fluorosis is characterized by the stunting of growth, the failure of the bloom to set, the dropping of fruit, delayed maturity, and lessened production.
Polk County, Florida, and Powell County, Montana, have a bond of common misery. Each once had a flourishing cattle industry and a bucolic environment. Now both have phosphate plants, fluoride gases and dust in the air, and the stains of air pollution on the land. Rocky Mountain Phosphates, Incorporated, started its operation in Garrison, Montana, in August 1963, coinciding with the first rash of citizen complaints to the Montana State Board of Health concerning smoke and fumes from the factory that had caused eye-burn, nose and throat irritations, coughing, and adverse effects on children with respiratory problems.
By August 1967, the local cattle industry faced extinction due to direct losses of cattle from fluoride poisoning and the concomitant deterioration of the value of ranches. In addition, an interstate air pollution conference held that month in Powell County heard testimony from residents of the Garrison area with regard to damage due to the fluoride emissions to their homes, yards, and automobiles. Testimony also noted continuing eye, nose, throat and respiratory irritations. A Garrison citizen described the four years of Rocky Mountain Phosphate operation as
“…a nightmare for me and my family. I have seen my neighbor’s business destroyed. Our business is only half what it was when this outfit moved in. I have been forced to cut down some of my shade trees that were killed by the emissions from this plant. There are many more that will have to be trimmed. We have had little pleasure in our home and surroundings.
But above all has been the misery and distress to my family and myself. There has scarcely been a night when this plant ran that I haven’t awakened with a burning tongue and throat, or with a headache or aching lungs. This is also true for the rest of my family. We seldom have been able to open a window, especially at night. We simply do not get proper rest and sleep.”
About the author: Ron Linton was Chairman of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Task Force on Environmental Health and Related Problems in the 1960s. Linton also served as Chairman of the Technical Assistance Committee, US Conference of City Health Officers, and served as national coordinator for the Urban Coalition. Linton was also a member of the Committee on Environmental Health for the American Public Health Association.