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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Pandora's Poison

by Eric Coppolino

Across the country, utilities, workers, and consumers are suing those who profited from PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) for their failure to warn them of the chemical's fatal hazards. The million pages of internal memos, correspondence, lab reports, and private studies made public through these lawsuits show that three of the largest corporations in the United States have known since the 1930s about many of the horrible health effects associated with PCBs—and yet concealed this information from the government, the media, the public, and their own customers.

Moreover, Monsanto (the source of all PCBs in the United States), Westinghouse, and GE publicly denied those problems. Monsanto even went so far as to falsify cancer research and use the fudged results to delay the federal regulation of PCBs, which did not occur until 1976. While the companies stonewalled, thousands of workers were exposed to high levels of PCB contamination and are now dying of cancer at a higher-than-average rate. Millions of pounds of PCBs were used around the country in everything from electrical transformers to French-fry cookers, yet for decades the companies did little or nothing to warn the public of the danger.

In contrast, great effort was spent covering it up. While an internal Monsanto "Pollution Abatement Plan" in 1969 admitted that "the evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence as residues in the environment is beyond question," it warned that "the corporate image of Monsanto as a responsible member of the business world genuinely concerned with the welfare of our environment will be adversely affected with increased publicity." More to the point, "direct lawsuits are possible" because "all customers using these products have not been officially notified about known effects nor [do] our labels carry this information." Now that such lawsuits are being filed across the country, we are getting our first glimpse of what happens behind the scenes when a poison is too profitable to give up.

Scientific knowledge about the dangers of PCBs has advanced along two tracks, one private and one public. The secret studies began in 1936, when many workers at the Halowax Corporation in New York City exposed to PCBs (then called chlorinated diphenyls) and related chemicals, called chlorinated naphthalenes, started coming down with chloracne, a painful, disfiguring skin disease. Three workers died. Autopsies of two revealed severe liver damage. Halowax asked Harvard University researcher Cecil K. Drinker to investigate.

Drinker presented his results at a 1937 meeting at Harvard attended by Monsanto, GE, Halowax, the US Public Health Service, and state health officials from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Like the Halowax workers, Drinker's test rats had suffered severe liver damage. "These experiments leave no doubt as to the possibility of systemic effects from the chlorinated naphthalenes and chlorinated diphenyls," he concluded.

Minutes of a discussion held later that day include a telling remark by GE official F. R. Kaimer: "We had 50 other men in very bad condition as far as the acne was concerned," he told the group. "The first reaction that several of our executives had was to throw [the PCB] out—get it out of our plant. But that was easily said but not so easily done. We might just as well have thrown our business to the four winds and said, 'We'll close up,' because there was no substitute and there is none today in spite of all the efforts we have made through our own research laboratories to find one."

Sanford Brown, the president of Halowax, concluded the meeting with another thought that would echo through the next five decades. Brown stressed the "necessity of not creating mob hysteria on the part of workmen in the plants" where chemical-safety inspections were being made. Problems with PCBs and naphthalenes, he predicted, "may continue, probably will continue for years." The silence of those at the meeting ensured that effect.

For three decades, the PCB problem remained invisible to the public—and indeed to everyone except the top managers of the companies that produced and used the chemical. That changed suddenly in 1966 with the accidental discovery of global PCB pollution by Swedish chemist Soren Jensen.

Jensen's discovery, first reported in 1966 in the English journal New Scientist, set in motion the chain of events that Monsanto, GE, and Westinghouse had hoped to avoid. The European press took notice immediately, and other scientists soon began investigating PCBs. Industry also took note by January 1967, according to Monsanto telephone logs. Shell Oil had called to inform the company of the Swedish press reports and to ask for PCB samples for its own analytical studies.

Widespread PCB contamination of the food chain in the United States was first demonstrated in 1969 by Dr. Robert Riseborough of the University of California at Berkeley, who happened upon it in the course of his research on peregrine falcons. San Francisco Chronicle reporter David Perlman learned about Riseborough's findings; his story, "A Menacing New Pollutant," ran on February 24, 1969, and was picked up by numerous other papers.

Monsanto launched its public-relations defense the next day by denying that the chemicals were PCBs. "The Swedish and American scientists...imply that polychlorinated biphenyls are 'highly toxic' chemicals." Monsanto said in a statement widely distributed to its customers and the press. "This is simply not true. The source of marine-life residue identified as PCB is not yet known. It will take extensive research, on a worldwide basis, to confirm or deny the initial scientific conclusion."

Monsanto, however, had all the information it needed to confirm or deny the claim itself. There was also plenty of evidence by this time that PCBs were "highly toxic."

In 1969, while publicly denying the problems linked to PCBs, Monsanto privately acknowledged them in its internal "Pollution Abatement Plan," which admitted that "the problem involves the entire United States, Canada and sections of Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Sweden other areas of Europe, Asia and Latin America will surely become involved. Evidence of contamination [has] been shown in some of the very remote parts of the world."

The Pollution Abatement Plan (really more of a liability abatement plan) proposed three options, with charts showing their potential profits and liabilities. Should Monsanto "Do Nothing," profits would likely decline and liability extend into the future. "We cannot deny the findings and the accusation of various agencies," the plan said. "If we took no action we would likely face numerous suits."

Under the "Discontinue Manufacture of PCB" option, profits would cease and liability would soar because "we would be admitting guilt by our actions."

But with the "Responsible Approach," which involved acknowledging certain aspects of the problem, tightening restrictions, and continuing to manufacture and sell PCBs, profits theoretically would increase and liability slowly decline, all but vanishing by the mid-1970s. It was this latter approach that Monsanto chose, making some adjustments to its business practices but going to battle with the government to keep PCBs on the market, despite growing scientific evidence that they constituted a public-health menace and an environmental nightmare.

At Westinghouse, another special committee met to discuss the growing PCB crisis. The December 28, 1971, minutes of the meeting (stamped "PRIORITY CLASS 1—DESTROY BY BURNING OR SHREDDING") acknowledged the problems of PCB accumulation in wildlife and indicated that PCBs caused reproductive disorders in chickens and birth defects in victims of the yusho incident. (The first known mass food poisoning by PCBs occurred in Japan in February 1968, when PCB fluid leaked into a batch of rice-bran oil, or Yusho. More than 1,600 people were initially exposed, with many showing immediate symptoms, including severe chloracne, respiratory ailments, and failing vision. It was from the "yusho incident" that scientists would soon document birth defects, low birth weights, and numerous other chronic effects of PCB exposure. Nine years after the yusho incident, there was a six fold increase in liver-cancer deaths among affected men and threefold among women.) The Westinghouse committee also acknowledged that yusho might have involved dibenzofurans, which are created when PCB oil is heated.

At this point the crisis entered its darkest hour. In order to maintain its 1971 position that "PCBs are not and cannot be classified as highly toxic," Monsanto engaged Industrial Bio-Test (IBT) Labs, of Northbrook, Illinois, to do safety studies on its Aroclor PCB products. Seven years later, IBT Labs would be at the center of one of the most far-reaching scandals in modern science, as thousands of its studies were revealed through EPA and FDA investigations to be fraudulent or grossly inadequate. One of IBT's top executives was Dr. Paul Wright, a Monsanto toxicologist who took a job at IBT Labs in part to supervise the PCB tests, and then returned to Monsanto. Wright was eventually convicted of multiple counts of fraud in one of the longest criminal trials in us history-with his legal fees paid by Monsanto.

While fraud on the PCB tests was not raised in the IBT trial, it is strongly suggested by memos and letters that came to light in later civil lawsuits. Several of these show how, at Monsanto's request, IBT Labs customized its studies.

Testimony about the IBT Labs scandal in a Texas lawsuit against Monsanto indicates that IBT was aware that PCBs caused extremely high numbers of tumors in test rats, with 82 percent developing tumors when fed Aroclor 1254 at 10 parts per million and 100 percent at 100 parts per million. Yet with a stroke of the pen IBT Labs certified PCBs a noncarcinogen.

Working behind the scenes of such scientific miracles was Paul Wright. In July 1976, after returning to Monsanto, he was given a $1000 award for "forestalling EPA's promulgation of unrealistic regulations to limit discharges of polychlor inated biphenyls." A year later, IBT labs was found out, and Wright and another IBT executive were eventually convicted of federal fraud charges.

The first proposal for a total ban on PCBs was made by Representative William Fitz Ryan (D-NY) in 1970. But partly due to the IBT tests, the substance stayed on the market until the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Before the lid clamped down, industry continued to minimize reports of PCB toxicity. "The low order of toxicity to man is supported by several decades experience in the US electrical industry," GE wrote the EPA in November 1973, urging the agency not to regulate PCBs. In its comments, Monsanto stated that "PCB has always been considered less hazardous than many other chemicals in everyday use."

Denials of the dangers would continue even after the ban. "There has never been a single documented case in this country where PCBs have been shown to cause cancer or any other serious human health problems," said Monsanto toxicologist John Craddock in a January 30, 1981 speech. "In the classical short term exposure, or acute toxicity sense, PCBs are classified as 'slightly toxic' by oral ingestion." Their toxicity was similar, he said, to that of table salt. "Monsanto, the government and the electrical industry together concluded that the benefits to society of continued PCB use far outweighed the risk." Decades after the Drinker study demonstrated PCBs' toxicity, 25 years after Monsanto's files indicated that dioxin and dibenzofurans were contaminants of PCBs, and with a former Monsanto official standing trial for fraud, Monsanto still claimed that PCBs were safe.

Six days after Craddock's speech, a PCB transformer from GE filled with Monsanto's Aroclor 1254 exploded and burned in Binghamton, New York—the first such US explosion that was publicly acknowledged to involve PCBs. "Binghamton's tallest building, centerpiece of a modern, multi-million-dollar downtown government complex, is now a landmark of the Chemical Age, an empty monolith filled with deadly dioxins," wrote the Associated Press. "What started out as a routine electrical fire eventually released some of the most toxic chemicals on Earth throughout the interior of the 18-story structure." Thirteen years later, the building is still closed to the public.

Although sale of PCBs has been banned in the United States for 18 years, billions of pounds are still with us: in electrical transformers, leaking from landfills, and lodged in the fatty tissues of humans and other animals, passed on to new generations through mother's milk and contaminated food, causing cancer, birth defects and sterility. For a few extra years of profits for Monsanto, GE, and Westinghouse, we are all now paying the price.

This article is excepted with permission of the author from Sierra magazine, September/October, 1994.

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