A quick Google search shows that chemical agricultural giant Monsanto is a polarizing figure in public discourse. The company is always front and center when debates about the safety of genetically modified organisms or GMOs are discussed in the public stage. However, these discussions rarely touch on Monsanto’s history of toxic contamination and pollution. Before it shifted its focus on chemical agriculture and biotechnology, Monsanto was a leader in the chemical industry. The company used to be the top producer of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, a synthetic chemical compound used as industrial coolants and insulators during the 1920s until the late 1970s.
PCBs have unique properties that made them useful for a wide variety of industrial and chemical applications. They are nonflammable, chemical stable, can withstand high temperatures, and have electrical insulating properties. These qualities made PCBs vital materials for everything from flame proof Christmas trees to sealants and adhesives in commercial buildings. Despite its utilitarian benefits, it soon came to light that PCBs posed potential health risks. According to an in-depth report by The Washington Post, evidence that Monsanto PCBs can cause detrimental health effects has been found as early as 1966. Unfortunately, the chemical industry giant chose to keep these findings confidential until two years before the government imposed a ban against the toxic chemical substance.
Monsanto produced PCBs at a local factory in the Alabama city of Anniston. For almost four decades, the city’s west side Snow Creek became the company’s dumping ground for chemical wastes and by-products. According to The Washington Post, this practice caused millions of pounds of PCBs to seep through open landfills and contaminate nearby areas. Confidential Monsanto files that surfaced after the state-imposed ban show that the company has long been aware of their pollution problem and did very little to mitigate the problem. The 1966 report showed that certain managers discovered how the fish in an affected creek “turned bell-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if dunked into boiling water.” A few years later, in 1969, The Washington Post noted that Monsanto found fishes in another affected creek with PCB levels 7,500 times above the legal level.
The city of Anniston continues to suffer the devastating effects caused by PCB pollution. The environmental damage and health risks caused by Monsanto PCBs have resulted in a number of lawsuits. By 2008, Monsanto paid up to $550 million to settle claims made by more than 20,000 Anniston residents exposed to PCB. However, many of these residents continue to deal with health issues caused by toxic exposure. Plenty of areas around Anniston also remain toxic, waiting for dredging procedures to help clear sediments and waters of the dangerous substance. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency identifies PCBs as probable human carcinogen.