** Check out our GMO TRUTH PODCAST #2 and listen to everything in this post, plus a bunch more, including my accidental evening with a GMO farmer at a basketball game over Super Bowl weekend here in Phoenix…
Today our first Investigation post starts to tackle the question – Why Do We Need To Dig Deeper Into GMOs? And remember, we’re using the tag “why dig deeper” for this sequence.
As you’ll start to notice pretty quickly, you can’t talk much about GMOs without also talking about Monsanto. And you’ve very likely heard some negative press on Monsanto, as they’ve received their fair share of it over the past few decades. They’re famous for manufacturing Agent Orange – and the dioxin contaminant within it – that’s been blamed for so much damage to American troops and Vietnamese people alike. They manufactured DDT, the controversial substance that saved millions of lives by reducing or even eliminating diseases like Malaria, because it knocked out the insect populations that transmitted them, but was later vilified for its potential effects on the environment, wildlife, and even people. And perhaps the most far-reaching “product” in their history, Monsanto also created PCBs, which they manufactured all the way from 1931 until roughly around the time PCBs were banned in the US in 1979.
We’ll investigate Agent Orange and DDT next week, but for now, because of the sheer scope involved, we’re just focusing on Monsanto and PCBs, a Monsanto controversy that is still in flux today.
As I read through one internal Monsanto document after another, I swear I felt like I was in a movie or a video game – because it all seemed way too surreal and bizarre to actually be real life. And unfortunately for every living thing who’s suffered courtesy of PCBs, it’s all truth. Let’s take a look at what happened…
If you’re not familiar with PCBs, it’s not a pretty episode in corporate American history. PCB stands for Polychlorinated biphenyl. Here’s a link to the EPA’s Public Health Implications page on PCBs, in case you feel like reading up more:
But here’s a quick summary from the EPA:
“PCBs are synthetic organic chemicals comprising 209 individual chlorinated biphenyl compounds. Exposure to each of these compounds is associated with different levels of risk for harmful effects. There are no known natural sources of PCBs. Although PCBs are no longer manufactured in the United States, people can still be exposed to them. The two main sources of exposure to PCBs are the environment and the workplace. Due to resistance to degradation, PCBs persist in the environment for decades.”
And if you’re reading this post, you very likely have detectable levels of PCBs in your blood, that’s how far-reaching and long-lasting they are.
Now Monsanto manufactured PCBs (which for the most part went by their product name Aroclor) at two main locations in the US – The Krummrich Plant in Sauget, IL, not far from St. Louis actually, and a factory in Anniston, AL. The company has been dealing with lawsuits related to these two facilities for years on end now, even though PCB production was stopped in 1971 in Anniston, and then later in the ’70s at Sauget. And it’s also been dealing with PCB contamination all over the planet, because as you’ll see here in a minute, the EPA isn’t kidding when it says this stuff doesn’t degrade very easily.
Part of the reason it’s so widespread is that Monsanto’s PCBs went into so many different things, some of which they never, ever should’ve been allowed into. The EPA documents some of those products on their main PCB page:
But here are a few of the key products:
Transformers and capacitors
Oil used in motors and hydraulic systems
Thermal insulation material including fiberglass, felt, foam, and cork
Adhesives and tapes
And I noticed Monsanto themselves even mentioned a particularly disturbing use of PCBs in highway paints, for which they said in a 1969 internal document that “one million lbs/year are used” and “through abrasion and leaching we can assume that nearly all of this Aroclor winds up in the
And one final note, PCBs were actually considered a godsend for some of those uses, particularly in transformers for example, because they were a much more stable alternative to things like mineral oil that were being used previously.
A Surreal Investigation
OK, so that’s a really quick and I know somewhat dry summary of what PCBs are, but bear with me… because now we’re gonna go down the rabbit hole together for a bit, and although nothing in here is about GMOs directly, when we come out the other side you’ll start to understand exactly why we’re doing this. And for the vast majority of this, we’re only dealing in facts, so no matter how crazy some of it may sound, it’s all stamped in black and white, literally, as court evidence (you’ll see links for every single document I reference). Alright here we go…
Now Monsanto enjoyed great propserity from PCBs – PCBs became the bread and butter of the company because as chemicals, they had so many uses and applications. But there were questions that had to be answered before something this big and this far-reaching went into production right?
And the questions were, how toxic were these chemicals? How well-tested were they? Monsanto knew from square one that PCBs would wind up in the environment in some capacity, because their own factories were putting them there. So how much did they account for that? Well, they spent the majority of those almost 50 PCB-producing years publicly acting like there really was no concern.
In fact they’re on record as saying:
“And the truth is that in 1966 when we found out that PCBs were in the environment, we started an investigation journey and we tried to gather information and we acted responsibly.”
[Trial Transcript, Owens v. Monsanto CV-96-J-440-E, (N.D. Alabama April 4, 2001), pg. 454, line 6]
So their hypothesis there is that, hey, yeah we were making this chemical for 35 years, but we had no idea how bad or prevalent it was. Unfortunately for them, at a trial where the plaintiffs were the people of Anniston, AL, their internal documents proved otherwise. And it started all the way back in 1937 with a Monsanto document that stated:
“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.” (1937 document)
Then in 1938 they received test information from a doctor, indicating just how toxic 2 of their PCB formulas could be to the liver. This is a direct quote from the doctor at the end of his comments:
“In view of the fact that #5460 in such low concentration proved so definitely toxic, no higher concentrations were tested. It seems imperative that whenever this compound is used in industry, great care be taken to keep concentrations in the air at an extremely low level. No liberties can be taken with it, as with #1268.” (1938 document)
Those #s refer to specific Aroclor/PCB compounds. Now fast forward to 1954, we’re popping the timeline up 16 years already, and an unidentified document from Monsanto discusses an incident where seven workers in an organic acid manufacturing plant developed lesions of chloracne. Chloracne is a really nasty skin condition you can get from PCB exposure. If you’d like to get seriously grossed out, just google a picture of chloracne… but I’ll leave that up to you as it is not a pretty sight.
The final paragraph of the document notes the following:
“The fact that air tests, even in the presence of vapors, showed only negligible amounts of chlorinated hydrocarbons indicates that this type of intermittent but fairly long continued mild exposure is not innocuous.” (1954 document)
MAC – Maximum Allowable Concentration
And then that same year, 1954, a more disturbing memo written by Monsanto’s Dr. R. Emmet Kelly, states:
“We do not know what the maximum allowable concentration of Aroclor is. One milligram per cubic meter has been set up. We have run animals for about 60 days at 7 times this and found some liver damage. We are now running this at a lower level.” (1954 document #2)
And this nearly 25 years after PCBs started production. Now granted, this all took place before the EPA even existed, but let’s wrap our heads around that: nearly 25 years AFTER your company started producing a substance used around the world, and in a multitude of applications, you’re making statements like:
“We do not know what the maximum allowable concentration… is.”
Another document from September 20, 1955, titled Aroclor Toxicity and again written by Dr. Kelly, contains this gem near the end:
“If, however, it[Aroclor] is distributed to householders where it can be used in almost any shape and form and we are never able to know how much of the concentration they are exposed to, we are much more strict. No amount of toxicity testing will obviate this last dilemma and therefore I do not believe any more testing would be justified.” (1955 document)
OK so this is about trying to limit Aroclor exposure in consumers, people who get PCB containing products in their homes. Now can you really be more strict in the concentrations you allow in those products, if you don’t even know your maximum allowable concentration? How can you put a warning label on anything destined for household use, if you don’t even know what usage level requires a warning? But either way, should your response ever be, “yeah, let’s just NOT test it?” We won’t be able to do anything about it anyway, so let’s just put it out there as is? That’s basically what Monsanto’s doctor meant when he said “I do not believe any more testing would be justified.”
Then that same year, a document from Monsanto’s Medical Department (on November 14, 1955) offers the opinion to their Illinois plant that “eating of lunches should not be allowed in this department [Department 246 – Aroclors] for a number of reasons…
1) Aroclor vapors and other process vapors could contaminate the lunches unless they were properly protected.
2) When working with this material, the chance of contaminating hands and subsequently contaminating the food is a definite possiblity.
3) It has long been the opinion of the Medical Department that eating in process departments is a potentially hazardous procedure that could lead to serious difficulties. While the Aroclors are not particularly hazardous from our own experience…
While the Aroclors are not particularly hazardous from our own experience… this is a difficult problem to define because early literature work claimed that chlorinated biphenyls were quite toxic materials by ingestion or inhalation. In any case where a workman claimed physical harm from any contaminated food, it would be extremely difficult on the basis of past literature reports to counter such claims.” (1955 document #2)
Now just remember, this is 1955. And it’s interesting… I wonder how they expected that to pan out when they found PCBs in fish, and cow’s milk, and water… which is what they ran into later, but let’s move forward to 1956, in what has got to be one of the most bizarre examples of corporate negligence I’ve ever seen, but thankfully it didn’t turn into the catastrophe it was likely headed for, as the US Navy was smart enough to prevent it.
In 1956, Monsanto was frustrated over a contract they were trying to secure with the Navy, for a PCB fluid called Pydraul 150, which they wanted the Navy to use in the close confines of a submarine. Yeah, I’m not making this up. Around Christmas 1956 things were getting a little chippy because the Navy decided to do some of their own testing, instead of simply taking Monsanto’s word for PCB safety. Less than a month later, on January 21, 1957, Monsanto’s Dr. Kelly sent out this memo:
“Dr. Treon and I spent an afternoon with the Navy people… They discussed their information concerning Pydraul 150 which was obtained at the Naval Institute of Medical Research. While reports were not available, they had the following general data:
Skin applications of Pydraul 150 caused death in all of the rabbits tested. (The amount administered was not given)… The inhalation of 10 milligrams of Pydraul 150 per cubic meter or approximately 2 tenths of a part per million for 24 hours a day for 50 days caused, statistically, definite liver damage. No matter how we discussed the situation, it was impossible to change their thinking that Pydraul 150 is just too toxic for use in a submarine. It may be that such concentrations would never be reached in the submarine, but the Navy does not appear willing to even put the material in a trial run to see if it will work.” (1956 document)
In a follow up report from September 25 of that same year, Elmer Wheeler closed the book on this by saying:
“The Navy convinces us that they would not accept Pydraul 150 and probably no other fluid containing chlorine or chlorinated diphenyls. We have not attempted to dissuade [them] since it appears to be hopeless. Since the interpretation of toxicity data is quite relative, our interpretation of facts and data would not be sufficient to change their opinions.” (1956 document #2)
I am still trying to wrap my head around that one, but you can bet I’ve made a note of that statement, and we’ll be touching on it more next week.
Ok we’re getting there… let’s fast forward to November 2, 1966 and a memo from Mississippi State’s Professor of Zoology to Monsanto. The scientist explains results of tests that involved placing cages filled with 25 live bluegill fish at 13 different locations in the Choccolocco Creek Drainage – the waterway system that accepted wastes from the Monsanto plant in Alabama. The tests that took place in the Snow Creek areas did not end well for the fish:
At – “A branch of Snow Creek originating in the Monsanto plant… All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10 seconds and all were dead in 3 minutes. The gill covers immediately assumed a flared position, and blood issued from the gills after 3-minutes exposure.”
In another part of Snow Creek:
“10 fish were down after 1 hour and 40 minutes; all were down in 2 hours and 25 minutes. All were dead in 2 hours and 35 minutes.”
In his conclusion, the professor stated the following:
“The outflow to Snow Creek from the east side of the Monsanto Plant… contains some extremely toxic materials and kills fish in less than 24 hours when diluted 300 times. In a flowing system (as opposed to our static tests) and under conditions of constant exposure, this effluent would probably kill fish when diluted 1000 times or so. Since this is a surface stream that passes through residential areas, it may represent a potential source of danger to children, domestic animals, etc.
Prolonged exposures of weeks and months to these substances could very likely kill fish at all points in Choccolocco Creek below the mouth of Snow Creek.”
Then at the start of his final paragraph, he asks pointedly to Monsanto:
“Can your people tell us what is going into Snow Creek?” (1966 document)
And that is the question I will leave you with until our follow up tomorrow, when we’ll look at what Monsanto did from 1966 and forward…