Monsanto's Toxic PCBs Lurking in 26,000 U.S. Public Schools, Report Says
Monsanto's history with a controversial and dangerous class of chemicals known as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, has once again reared its ugly head.
PCBs, a highly toxic chemical manufactured by Monsanto decades ago, is still found in our environment today. Office of Senator Edward J. Markey
On the same day that the agribusiness giant announced plans to set aside a whopping $280 million in PCB personal injury settlements, a study from scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that up to 14 million students in 26,000 schools in the U.S. could be exposed to unsafe levels of the highly toxic chemicals even though they were banned several decades ago.
Before switching its operations to agriculture, Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of PCBs from 1935 until 1977. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned PCBs in 1979 due to its link to birth defects and cancer in laboratory animals. PCBs can have adverse skin and liver effects in humans and can also linger in the environment for many decades.
The Harvard study noted that PCBs could still be leaching from caulking, sealants and other aging building materials and fixtures in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation.
The report states:
"Decades after the PCB ban, people are still being exposed to these toxic chemicals from various sources, such as caulk, some oil-based paints, and floor finish in buildings constructed between 1950 and 1979; leaking fluorescent light ballast; old electrical equipment; and PCB-containing landfills. Most worrisome are PCB exposures for children in schools built or retrofitted during the period that PCB-containing materials were widely used. Up to 14 million students nationwide, representing nearly 30 percent of the school-aged population, may be exposed to PCBs in their schools, based on the estimated number of schools built during that time and how much PCB-containing material was used in these schools. A 2016 Harvard School of Public Health study estimates that between 12,960 and 25,920 schools have PCB-containing caulk"
The report—The ABCs of PCBs—was released on Wednesday by U.S. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and America Unites for Kids.
"That number comes by looking back at those periods of time where public schools were most extensively built. About 60 percent of the schools were built from 1950 to the early '80s, the time when PCBs were most commonly used in building materials," Robert Herrick, primary author and researcher at Harvard School of Public Health, said at a conference call. "It's a reasonable estimate. There's never been a national survey."
"PCBs are some of the most toxic and persistent chemicals ever produced," said Ken Cook, president of EW. "It's shocking to find that while they were banned decades ago, millions of kids and other Americans continue to be exposed today."
According to the Washington Post, people can be exposed to PCBs simply by touching contaminated substances, eating contaminated food or breathing in PCB-laden dust.
The new report includes a chart for each state on the availability of PCB information (or lack thereof) on state websites.
At some schools in Malibu, California, PCB concentrations were thousands of times higher than the federal limit.
"Parents have the right to know what their children are being exposed to in school," America Unites for Kids founder Jennifer deNicola founder told the Post. DeNicola, a parent living in Malibu, California, filed a lawsuit against the school district over PCB contamination.
As it happens, supermodel Cindy Crawford pulled her two children from Malibu High School over the issue. She has since become a spokesperson for America Unites for Kids.
"Millions of our students are likely spending significant hours each week inside classrooms that expose them to extremely toxic chemicals that could cause serious health problems for them," Crawford said. "Unfortunately, as these findings show and by our own personal experience in Malibu, the government agencies have very little information or answers for parents and teachers. Schools and classrooms should be healthy places where our kids are safe and able to flourish, not environments that could put them at risk."
Last month, a federal judge ordered the Malibu school district to remove PCBs from its schools by Dec. 31, 2019.
Proper removal of PCBs in public schools across the U.S. could cost between $25.9 billion and $51.8 billion, the report estimates.
Sen. Markey said in a conference call that while the EPA is currently inspecting schools for PCB contamination, it could take 32 years to check schools across the country for the chemicals.
According to the report, schools in New England have reported the most cases of PCB contamination. However, as Markey pointed out, "schools do not test for PCB hazards, and are not required to do so."
"And when PCB contamination is found, no one has to report it to the EPA ... To put it plainly, we have no real idea how many students are being exposed to PCBs in their classroom each and every day," he said.
The report's supporters are calling on the EPA to survey school systems nationwide and update its records to better assess the scope of potential PCB hazards in schools. They are also calling on the source of PCB exposure be eliminated from our nation's schools.
Meanwhile, in a Wednesday press release for its fiscal year 2016 results, Monsanto said it was setting aside money for PCB litigation.
"Selling, general & administrative expenses increased, primarily due to the $280 million in PCB litigation settlement costs associated with a group of legacy PCB personal injury claims," the company said. "In September, after diligent efforts, the company reached an agreement to potentially settle all the legacy PCB personal injury claims, including those on appeal. The settlement and final payment amount will be contingent upon the level of claimant participation, which the company anticipates will be met at a very high level."
Monsanto has already had to face the music with its controversial chemical. In May, a St. Louis jury awarded three plaintiffs a total of $46.5 million in damages in a lawsuit alleging that Monsanto and three other companies were negligent in its handling of PCBs. The lawsuit claimed that Monsanto continued to sell the compounds even after it learned about its dangers and falsely told the public they were safe. Indeed, internal documents have surfaced showing that Monsanto knew about the health risks of PCBs long before they were banned.
A document, dated Sept. 20, 1955, stated: "We know Aroclors [PCBs] are toxic but the actual limit has not been precisely defined."
Several cities in the West Coast have also initiated lawsuits against Monsanto over PCB clean-up costs.
#Portland Becomes 7th City to Sue #Monsanto Over #PCBs https://t.co/gz6fDPiG4I @Waterkeeper @RobertKennedyJr @EWG https://t.co/mSYnR9eJpE— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1458225707.0
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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