The Legacy of Monsanto’s PCBs: Oozing Pus, Birth Defects and Immune Problems
The people of New Bedford, Massachusetts, have always been tough. When New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world, seven men would hop into a 25-foot rowboat to chase — and harpoon up close — furious 50-foot whales weighing 85 tons. After petroleum replaced whale oil around 1900, New Bedford workers then kept 70 textile mills humming day and night. After textiles moved away, from the 1940s onward New Bedford supplied the world with electric gear. But when those factories began to close in the 1960s, they left behind some awful secrets — 572 chemically poisoned plots of land within the city’s 24 square miles, including land where unsuspecting townspeople built two public schools. In the early 1980s, local people learned that their prized harbor — all 18,000 acres of it, including its bounty of fish and lobsters — had been rendered dangerously toxic by factory wastes. In 1983, New Bedford Harbor, the mouth of the Acushnet River, was declared a Superfund site, heavily contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). This small city reeled. To many, the combination of unemployment and toxic waste seemed insurmountable.
PCBs are a family of 209 industrial poisons known to harm humans at extremely low levels of exposure. PCBs cause cancer, diabetes, birth defects, liver disease and high blood pressure — and they disrupt the nervous, hormonal and immune systems, giving rise to a broad array of other problems. A few of the 209 PCBs are thought to pose a toxic threat even more potent than dioxin.
About 60,000 of New Bedford’s 95,000 residents live in “environmental justice neighborhoods as defined in Massachusetts law, based on percent of people who have low income or identify as minority or lack proficiency in English. But, like residents of decades past, they have proven themselves tough. To face down the menace of PCBs, grassroots groups sprang up, determined to force a complete cleanup of their poisoned city, 55 miles below Boston on the South Coast. The Hands Across the River Coalition (HARC) got on the case first, assisted by the Roxbury-based Toxics Action Center. They were joined by CLEAN (Citizens Leading Environmental Action Network) and the Buzzards Bay Coalition. To this day, HARC’s leader, Karen Vilandry, is a relentless watchdog, calling out corruption, mismanagement and bad decisions, naming names fearlessly.
Now President Trump has once again shown local people the government can’t be trusted to keep its word. Less than a month into his presidency, Trump proposed severely cutting the national budget for toxic cleanups — doing so at the very moment when a new study has revealed that PCBs wafting off New Bedford Harbor have penetrated homes and offices in nearby towns.
Harbor PCBs Are Contaminating Local Air
PCBs rising off the 28-square-mile surface of New Bedford Harbor have been measured in neighboring towns by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa and Boston University. This is the first study to find PCBs from a body of water measurable at high concentrations in nearby air. Until now, health authorities had assumed that PCBs in lake and river sediments could only harm people who ate contaminated fish. As recently as 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told residents of New Bedford, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, North Fairhaven and Acushnet that “inhalation of air” near New Bedford Harbor was not a significant risk. Now that conclusion must be reconsidered.
The Harbor cleanup has been going on for 35 years. Since 2004, continuous dredging has removed 25,000 to 30,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments each year. All told, 1.7 million cubic yards of toxic sediment are scheduled to be dredged up and dumped somewhere. At the present rate, full cleanup will take many more decades. The EPA has earmarked funds to accelerate the Harbor cleanup, but Trump’s budget cuts could wreck that plan.
Most of the world’s PCBs were manufactured by Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical giant, starting in 1935. PCBs conduct heat but not electricity, and they do not readily break down — so they made an ideal insulator for electric gear. They were also used in lubricants, paints, carbonless carbon paper, hydraulic fluid, window caulking, lamp ballasts, plastics and wire coatings, among many other products.
The first sign of toxicity from PCBs was a painful, disfiguring acne afflicting PCB workers — inflamed pimples and blackheads oozing pus. At a meeting in 1937, F.R. Kaimer, assistant manager of General Electric’s Wireworks at York, Pennsylvania, described GE’s experience coating wire with PCBs:
We had in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 men afflicted with various degrees of this acne about which you all know. Eight or ten of them were very severely afflicted — horrible specimens as far as their skin condition was concerned. We had 50 other men in very bad condition as far as the acne was concerned.
He went on:
The first reaction that several of our executives had was to throw it out — get it out of our plant. They didn’t want anything like that for treating wire. 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.
So in 1937, GE and Monsanto made a business decision to continue manufacturing PCBs they knew were highly toxic.
General Electric went on to dump many tons of waste PCBs into both the Hudson and Housatonic Rivers. Today, both rivers remain contaminated along their entire lengths — the Housatonic from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 150 miles down to Stratford, Connecticut; and the Hudson from Fort Edward, New York, to Manhattan, 200 miles downstream. Like Monsanto, GE has aggressively evaded responsibility. In 1970, Monsanto issued a famously false statement saying, “It has been implied that polychlorinated biphenyls are ‘highly toxic’ chemicals. This is not true…. PCBs are not hazardous when properly handled and used.”
Between 1929 and 1989, world production of PCBs totaled 3.3 billion pounds, most of which is still “out there” somewhere. In 1966, Swedish researchers were alarmed to discover PCBs accumulating in wild fish, and slowly the scientific community realized that PCBs had escaped and were spreading everywhere, harming fish, birds and mammals, including humans.
By the early 1990s in the US, women’s breast milk contained about one part per million of PCBs, so a suckling infant was receiving a dose of PCBs about five times the “allowable daily intake” set for adults by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
PCBs Disrupt Hormones and the Immune System
In addition to many other biological effects, PCBs suppress the immune and hormone systems, which then may allow the development of many unrelated diseases. Studies show that mothers who have eaten PCB-contaminated fish have given birth to babies with small heads, poor memories and slow reaction times to stimuli.
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream in extremely low levels (parts per trillion), turning on and off bodily processes. Hormones control human development and behavior, starting in the womb. Industrial chemicals that mimic hormones can turn on or off biological processes unexpectedly. In fish, PCBs are known to turn males into females.
After 13 years of alarming scientific discoveries about PCBs poisoning wildlife and humans, the US finally banned PCBs in 1979. But by then, PCBs had become what the EPA now calls “the most widespread pollutant on the planet,” measurable in nearly everyone, including newborn babies.
PCBs can be chemically detoxified, and the EPA itself has described these alternatives. Chemical detox offers a permanent solution to the PCB problem, but it’s more expensive than burying PCBs in the ground, so the EPA has chosen to bury New Bedford’s PCBs.
EPA plans to dump 300,000 cubic yards of toxic sediments into a “CAD cell” — a “confined aquatic disposal” cell, which is nothing more than a large underwater hole dug into the bottom of the Harbor (the Acushnet River) — to be filled with toxic sediment, then “capped” with clean sediment. The Army Corp of Engineers has announced a separate plan to widen the ship channel into New Bedford, dumping an additional 751,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment into a separate CAD cell in the Harbor bottom. Fans of CAD cells say it will “permanently” hold its toxic load. But anyone familiar with geologic history knows this may not be true. Sooner or later, weather and geologic processes can scour the river bottom, releasing the CAD cell’s PCBs to the ocean downstream.
The remainder of New Bedford’s toxic sediments are being shipped 800 miles by rail to Belleville, Michigan, a town of 4,000 people 29 miles southwest of Detroit. There, the PCBs are being buried in a licensed hazardous waste landfill 2,000 feet from the edge of the Huron River, which flows into Lake Erie.
There is good theoretical and empirical evidence that the hazardous constituents which are placed in land disposal facilities very likely will migrate from the facility into the broader environment. This may occur several years, even many decades, after placement of the waste in the facility, but data and scientific prediction indicate that, in most cases, even with the application of best available land disposal technology, it will occur eventually.
Defenders of toxic burial say that authorities like the EPA will monitor dumps like Belleville and the New Bedford CAD cell for the duration of the hazard. But PCBs buried in dark, airless tombs will remain toxic, so they will have to be monitored “in perpetuity.” Humans have no experience doing anything “in perpetuity.”
Short-Term Remedies May Not Work in the Long Term
The EPA’s chosen remedy for New Bedford’s PCBs may not even serve its main purpose of protecting local people from exposure to potent poisons. “They keep calling it a cleanup,” said Karen Vilandry of Hands Across the River. “It’s not a cleanup because the EPA, even after their 300,000 cubic yards and after their dredging, is still going to leave 50 parts per million of PCB sediments behind. Other places in the country it’s one part per million. So why is it they’re leaving 50 parts per million here? Oh, because it’s New Bedford — an environmental justice community, so we’re a dumping ground. It’s still going to affect the fish; humans are still going to be eating the fish — where’s the cleanup?”
Vilandry makes a valid point: At other PCB sites — the Fox River in Wisconsin, the St. Lawrence in New York and the Housatonic — the EPA’s cleanup goal has been one part per million of residual PCBs, not 50 ppm.
As for CAD cells and licensed landfills, in the long run, humans will tend to forget where they buried their toxic wastes as more pressing problems demand attention. Unless PCBs are chemically destroyed, eventually most of them will very likely escape into the environment and slowly move into the ocean, either carried on air, or attached to soil particles moved by water. There, they will decimate marine mammal populations.
Marine mammals are freakishly sensitive to PCBs for two reasons. First, whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, seals, sea otters and polar bears lack the genes needed to detoxify and eliminate PCBs. As a result, PCBs accumulate in their bodies, producing a toxic concentration that is up to 10 million times higher than the PCBs found at the bottom of the ocean food chain. Second, the reproductive system of marine mammals is a prime target for PCB toxicity. For example, a 1970 study of seals in the Baltic Sea revealed that 80 percent of females were sterile, poisoned by eating PCB-laden fish, and in Norway, polar bears have experienced unprecedented changes to their genitalia.
In the late 1980s, scientists calculated that about 20 percent of all the world’s PCBs had already reached the ocean. In 1988, Canadian geneticist Joseph Cummins calculated that if another 15 percent of the world’s PCBs made it into the ocean, widespread reproductive failure would spell extinction for all marine mammals. Dr. Cummins suggested in 1988 — and again in 1998 — that Monsanto should be required to buy back and chemically detoxify all the PCBs that are now stored (temporarily) in leaky machines and burial sites around the world. It’s still a good idea.
Peter Montague is a historian and journalist whose work has appeared in Counterpunch, Huffington Post, the Nation and many other publications. He has co-authored two books on toxic heavy metals.