Environment

This City Is Suing Monsanto for Decades of PCB Poisoning

The agribusiness giant made and sold PCBs for nearly half a century, though it knew they caused cancer and birth defects, according to a new federal lawsuit.

Photo Credit: Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock.com

Monsanto made and sold polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, for nearly half a century, though it knew the chemicals were carcinogenic, caused birth defects and were accumulating in the environment, Spokane claims in Federal Court.

The city sued Monsanto and its subsidiaries, Solutia and Pharmacia, claiming PCBs are at alarming levels in the Spokane River. Fish in the river are too toxic to eat, and elevated levels of PCBs have been documented in surface water and river sediment, according to the city's suit.

The chemicals readily leach and off-gas out of paint, coolant, plastics and inks and contaminate nearby surfaces, air, water and soil, according to the complaint. The city says the chemicals ride into the Spokane River via storm water and other runoff.

Spokane says it will spend more than $100 million on efforts to stop PCBs from making it into the Spokane River.

Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the United States from 1935 until 1979, when Congress banned the manufacture and use of PCBs under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

But the agrochemical behemoth has known that the chemicals were dangerously toxic since at least 1937, the city claims.

Studies have linked PCBs to an increased risk of many kinds of cancer, as well as endocrine damage, reduced immune response and birth defects such as lower IQ scores, low birth weight and behavioral problems, according to the complaint.

The chemicals accumulate in the liver, skin and fat cells, and breast milk, the city says.

Monsanto pumped out the toxic chemicals primarily under the name Aroclor.

"Experimental work in animals shows that prolonged exposure to Aroclor vapors evolved at high temperatures or by repeated oral ingestion will lead to systemic toxic effects. Repeated bodily contact with the liquid Aroclors may lead to an acne-form skin eruption," an internal Monsanto memo from October 1937 stated.

Another internal memo from 1955 acknowledged: "We know Aroclors are toxic but the actual limit has not been precisely defined. It does not make too much difference ... because our main worry is what will happen if an individual develops any type of liver disease and gives a history of Aroclor exposure," according to the complaint.

Also in 1955, Monsanto's medical department allegedly recommended that the company's employees avoid eating lunch in the Aroclor department to avoid "a potentially hazardous procedure that could lead to serious difficulties."

And in 1957, the U.S. Navy decided against using Aroclor, telling Monsanto that the chemicals were "just too toxic for use in a submarine," the lawsuit states.

Monsanto has also known for decades that PCBs were quickly accumulating in the environment, the city says.

In 1966, Monsanto's medical director reviewed an article by Swedish researcher Soren Jensen, who reported finding PCBs in the bodies of Swedish fish and wildlife, in the air over London and Hamburg and in seals caught off the coast of Scotland, the city says.

Jensen found that PCBs "can be presumed to be widespread throughout the world," according to the complaint.

A 1968 article in the journal Nature called chlorinated hydrocarbons, the chemical family that includes PBCs, "the most abundant synthetic pollutants present in the global environment," the lawsuit states. The article linked PCBs to the rapid decline of peregrine falcons in the United States.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the havoc PCBs were wreaking on the environment and human health, Monsanto continued to pump out the toxic chemicals, the lawsuit states.

In a 1970 internal Monsanto report, a company committee allegedly stated that although doing nothing was "unacceptable from a legal, moral, and customer public-relations and company-policy viewpoint," the company had too much money to make on PCBs to leave the market.

"There is too much customer/market need and selfishly too much Monsanto profit to go out," the committee report states.

This attitude was repeated in a 1970 inter-office memo, where Monsanto provided employees with talking points for discussions with customers over the company's decision to discontinue two types of Aroclor, the city says.

Monsanto "can't afford to lose one dollar of business," the memo stated. "We want to avoid any situation where a customer wants to return fluid ... we would prefer that the customer use up his current inventory and purchase new products when available. He will then top off with the new fluid and eventually all Aroclor 1254 and Aroclor 1260 will be out of his system. We don't want to take fluid back."

That same year, Monsanto's PCB production in the United States peaked at 85 million pounds, according to the complaint.

Visit Courthouse News for complaint and more on this story.

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Karina Brown is a reporter for Courthouse News. Follow her on Twitter @karinapdx.