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What Monsanto Knew | The Nation

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What Monsanto Knew

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Karen McFarlane lives in plain view of the plant. It's a mild morning in February, and Karen didn't sleep much last night. Clothed only in a T-shirt and underwear, with a sweater draped over her lap, she lights her first cigarette of the morning--a bent Basic--and promptly drops it on the shaggy blue rug. Dakota, Karen's 16-month-old, is playing with the severed head of a Barbie knock-off and there's not much to eat in the house. But Karen has other worries. Outside, a chain-link fence, six feet high and capped by barbed wire, surrounds the gray Buccaneer trailer where she lives with her husband, Ryan, and their five children, blocking access to gray-green fields once populated by neighbors and small businesses that have been chased away by PCB contamination. "I never thought I'd say it, but I just want to get away from here," says Karen, who has lived in Anniston her whole life.

About the Author

Nancy Beiles
Nancy Beiles, a reporter at Talk magazine, lives in Brooklyn.

She has PCBs in her body fat. According to tests done by a local doctor, Ryan's blood has nearly triple the level considered "typical" in the United States; for Tiffany, their 6-year-old, it's double. Nathan, 8, has severe developmental problems, and everyone in the family suffers from respiratory problems and the skin rashes associated with PCB exposure. Chris, Karen's 11-year-old son, who's home from school with an upset stomach and is splayed out on the couch, lifts his Panthers basketball T-shirt to reveal brownish-red blotches climbing up the sides of his chest. "It smells like decaying flesh," Ryan warns. "Like it's rotten."

Most of their friends and family have already left, but the McFarlanes can't afford anything other than the small dirt lot where they park their trailer. Karen was recently hospitalized for respiratory-stress disorder and had two strokes at age 30. Her most recent Pap smear was abnormal, but she says she's too scared to have a follow-up exam. Ryan, who has small pink growths dotting his neck, wistfully talks of going to an oncologist for a full cancer screening, something he's unlikely to get soon because he doesn't have health insurance. The McFarlanes are stuck in a place where, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, cancer rates are 25 percent higher than in the rest of the state.

Anniston was founded as a company town. In 1872, Samuel Noble, a British-born businessman, and Daniel Tyler, a Union general and a cousin of Aaron Burr, established Woodstock Iron in a then-barren outpost at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. The company built a church, a schoolhouse and a general store. To guarantee the moral fiber of their fabricated utopia, the townspeople threw away their whiskey bottles, declared their own Prohibition and erected a fence around the town's perimeter, creating one of the nation's earliest gated communities. During World War I, chemical producers arrived, and in 1929, the Theodore Swann Company became the nation's first maker of PCBs, nonflammable chemicals that lubricate industrial systems that generate heat. By 1935 the Monsanto Company recognized PCBs as big business and bought Swann's Anniston facility. For close to forty years, Monsanto sold PCBs to companies like General Electric and Westinghouse, helping them insure that webs of electrical wires wouldn't burst into flames.

In the sixties Monsanto encountered a serious threat to its success. While chemical manufacturers throughout the country were scrutinizing the environmental impacts of their products amid growing pressure to reduce emissions, a team of Swedish researchers discovered PCBs in wildlife. For every electrical wire kept from overheating, some of the chemical had been escaping. This discovery, which received wide publicity in 1966, raised concerns for Monsanto, which worried that it would usher in governmental regulations limiting PCB use. "Truly the PCBs are a worldwide ecological problem," declared a company memo that included a list of concerns under the heading "Business Potential at Stake on a Worldwide Basis."

At the time, the government had not yet declared PCBs to be hazardous to human health, but suspicions had been growing for quite a while. As early as 1937 the medical community was examining PCBs to see if they were a public health hazard--a study published that year in the Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology suggested links between PCBs and liver disease. In the mid-fifties Monsanto researchers and executives began writing confidential memos describing their fears about the chemicals' toxic effects, but they drafted plans for continuing to sell them despite these suspicions. In 1956 Monsanto considered the chemicals toxic enough to give workers protective gear and clothing, and encourage them to hose off after each shift. Along with other chemical manufacturers, the company publicly expressed skepticism about PCBs' association with disease, but over the next decade the evidence became harder and harder to dismiss. In 1968 the links between PCBs and disease won wide credibility when residents of a Japanese town were harmed by consuming PCB-contaminated rice oil. Subsequent studies published in leading medical journals showed that PCBs damage the immune system, the reproductive system and the nervous and endocrine systems.

Monsanto had hundreds of millions in PCB sales to lose if regulators placed restrictions on their use. By 1969 the company established a committee to keep abreast of the state of knowledge on PCBs. The issue was beginning to look like "a monster," in the words of one former executive.

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