"Monsanto Hid Decades of Pollution," trumpets the headline of a front-page article in the Jan 1 edition of the Washington Post. "PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told," adds the subhead.
The article, written by Post staff writer Michael Grunwald, goes on to describe, in great detail, events that took place over the past 40 years in a small town in Alabama. The article can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46648-2001Dec31.html.
According to Grunwald and his sources, Monsanto Co. "routinely discharged toxic waste into a west Anniston (Ala.) creek and dumped millions of pounds of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) into oozing open pit landfills." Internal Monsanto documents, many marked "CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy," indicate that the company concealed its knowledge of the environmental impact and possible human health effects of its actions in Anniston. The documents came to light in recent years following the filing of lawsuits against the company related to the contamination in the Anniston area.
Monsanto spun off its chemical division in 1997. Not surprisingly, Solutia Inc., as Monsanto''s former chemical operations is now known, released a statement yesterday calling the article "one-sided and biased," adding, "The story does not accurately represent the history of Monsanto''s actions regarding PCBs or the situation in Anniston."
(An interesting sidenote: Prior to his nomination, John Henshaw, newly appointed administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, served as director for environment, safety and health at Astaris LLC in St. Louis, a joint venture between Solutia Inc. and FMC. From 1997 to 2000 he served in a similar position with Solutia Inc. Henshaw began working for Monsanto in 1975.)
Starting in 1929, the Swann Chemical Co. plant in Anniston became the first site in the world to make PCBs. Monsanto Industrial Chemicals Co. bought the plant in 1935. During the early years of production at the facility, the strict government controls and environmental management strategies that exist today were not in existence.
Solutia maintains that while PCBs were manufactured at the Anniston facility for four decades and have been found in the environment, Solutia -and Monsanto before it - acted fairly and responsibly in dealing with the community and regulators about the situation.
"From the earliest emergence of environmental concerns about PCBs, Monsanto worked with government and academic scientists and researchers, to help learn as much as possible about PCBs, their environmental levels and behavior, and their potential health effects," claims Solutia.
The company has spent more than $40 million in remediation activities in the Anniston community, which includes extensive sampling of waterways, public and private lands as well as property purchase programs, environmental remediation and restoration. Solutia claims it has "adequately identified and accounted for future potential liability with regard to environmental and litigation activities."
In his article, Grunwald reports that Monsanto discovered in 1966 that fish submerged in the west Anniston creek died within minutes, spurting blood and shedding skin. In 1969, fish in another creek registered PCB levels 7,500 times above legal limits. Company documents at the time indicated "there is little object in going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges."
PCBs are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals with the same basic chemical structure and similar physical properties ranging from oily liquids to waxy solids. Due to their non-flammability, chemical stability, high boiling point and electrical insulating properties, PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications including electrical, heat transfer, and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics and rubber products; in pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper and many other applications. More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States prior to cessation of production in 1977.
Solutia says that Monsanto ceased production of PCBs at its Anniston plant in 1971. Monsanto continued limited PCB production at its Sauget, Ill., plant in response to the electrical industry''s needs for fire-resistant fluids. Monsanto voluntarily ceased all PCB production in 1977, two years before required to do so by the federal government.
"There is no consistent, convincing evidence that PCBs are associated with serious, long-term health effects," says Solutia in a statement. "Studies of industrial workers have shown no illnesses attributable to PCB exposure, other than an acne-like skin rash and a temporary elevation of some liver enzymes."
That statement is not untrue, according to information obtained from The Public Health Statement for PCBs released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which notes that "skin conditions, such as acne and rashes, may occur in people exposed to high levels of PCBs."
Although technically truthful, some critics claim Solutia''s statement comes off as a bit ingenuous when the facts are examined. The truth, according to the Public Health Statement, is that most of the human studies involving PCB exposure have many shortcomings, "which make it difficult for scientists to establish a clear association between PCB exposure levels and health effects," admits the ATSDR. Some studies in workers suggest that exposure to PCBs may also cause irritation of the nose and lungs, gastrointestinal discomfort, changes in the blood and liver, and depression and fatigue, according to the ATSDR.
In a press release about risk assessments performed by EPA on the Hudson River, which the agency recently ordered dredged by General Electric at a cost estimated to be as much as $500 million, the agency notes, "PCBs are probable carcinogens in humans and are known carcinogens in animals. Other long-term adverse health effects of PCBs observed in laboratory animals include a reduced ability to fight infections, low birth weights and learning problems."
The report concludes that eating fish from the Upper Hudson River is the primary way for humans to be exposed to the PCBs and that the increased cancer risk for people eating one meal a week of fish caught in the Hudson is "1000 times higher than EPA''s goal for protection and 10 times the highest risk level generally allowed under the federal Superfund law."
David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the State University of New York at Albany, told the Post''s Grunwald that the people living around the former Monsanto plant in Anniston have higher PCB levels than any residential population he''s ever seen. "They''re 10 times higher than the people living around the Hudson," The Post quotes him as saying.
Much of the information about Anniston came to light recently when some 3,600 plaintiffs banded together to sue Monsanto and the discovery process lead to the exchange of thousands of pages of internal Monsanto documents. Carpenter will serve as a paid expert witness for the plaintiffs in a trial that starts Monday in Alabama. The company has already paid some $80 million in legal settlements, according to the Post article.
In a recent case, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that an individual must show that he or she is currently suffering or has suffered from an injury in order to state a valid physical injury claim. Many of the folks who live in the Anniston area admit they have not suffered any noticeable health effects. But many worry they are "ticking time bombs," as one resident put it.
The EPA has collected thousands of blood, soil, and water samples in Anniston, many of which show high levels of PCBs and other hazardous materials. So far, the soil tests have turned up eight residential properties with PCB levels that exceed EPA''s emergency cleanup standard, including one residential property with PCB levels nearly three times the EPA''s emergency standard. The agency is still conducting testing and has not listed Anniston as a Superfund site.
The Anniston facility that once pumped out PCBs now manufactures a chemical used in Tylenol, an irony not lost on one local resident who chuckles, "Bet those guys at Monsanto and Solutia could use some right about now. This is probably causing a mighty big headache."
by Sandy Smith ([email protected])