This story is Part 6 of a 10-part series on environmental justice from Environmental Health News. Brett Israel writes for Environmental Health News.
Widespread chemical contamination from a Monsanto plant was discovered in this quiet city in the Appalachian foothills back in the 1990s. In West Anniston, behind Long’s home, a church was fenced off, and men in “moon suits” cleaned the site for weeks. Nearby, boarded windows and sunken porches hang from abandoned shotgun houses. Stray dogs roam the narrow streets. A red “nuisance” sign peeks above the un-mowed lawn of one empty house. Bulldozers will be here soon.
But Long stayed. He was the only one on his street who chose not to move; he had lived in the same house for all but one of his 64 years.
Now he is stuck. Stuck on a street with no neighbors. Stuck with a property he’s convinced is unclean. Stuck with an extraordinary load of chemicals in his body. And stuck with diabetes.
As the Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight of the cleanup of this neighborhood stretches into its eighth year, new research has linked PCBs exposure to a high rate of diabetes in this community of about 4,000 people, nearly all African American and half living in poverty.
The findings add to a picture of the town’s poor health following decades of contamination. It’s the latest chapter in a saga that this poverty-stricken, powerless community feels has dragged on far too long.
“Monsanto walked away not doing their job. They left a community still sick, still dying and very dissatisfied,” Long said.
Even today, people in West Anniston are among the most highly contaminated in the world.
For four decades, from 1929 until 1971, a Monsanto plant in West Anniston produced chemicals called PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls. Somehow – even today no one is quite sure how – the chemicals got into the soil and waterways.
Used mostly to insulate large electrical capacitors and transformers, PCBs were one of the most widely used industrial substances on Earth until they were banned in the United States, and most other developed countries, in the late 1970s.
PCBs are stubborn chemicals. They persist in soil and sediment for decades, perhaps centuries, and are locked away in the fatty tissues of animals, building up in food webs. Seventy percent of all the PCBs ever made are still in the environment.
The old Monsanto plant, now operated by Solutia Inc., doesn’t have menacing smokestacks. PCBs are colorless, virtually invisible. But the health risks here are hiding in plain sight.
In Anniston, class action lawsuits were filed and settled. The national media came and went. Monsanto split up and left town. Some residents took buyouts and moved. Other houses were abandoned and demolished. Thousands of properties have been cleaned. A landfill just a short walk from Long’s home has been filled with tainted soil removed from yards in the neighborhood. In 2003, Solutia and Monsanto paid a $600 million settlement to more than 20,000 people based on their exposure to PCBs. An additional $100 million was to be spent on cleanup and other programs.
Anniston’s PCBs contamination qualifies as a Superfund site, making it one of the most contaminated places in the country. However, it has been designated a Superfund Alternative Approach site because Solutia and Pharmacia (the pharmaceutical split-off from Monsanto) agreed in 2000 to clean up the contamination with oversight by the EPA.
Over the past few decades, scientists have linked exposure to PCBs to a long list of health problems: immune suppression, thyroid gland damage, skin disorders, anemia, liver cancer and impaired reproduction. Children exposed in the womb to high levels of PCBs have reduced IQs, including problems with memory and motor skills, as well as weakened immune systems that make them more prone to illness, according to research conducted in Great Lakes and Arctic populations. The EPA classifies them as probable human carcinogens.
Now scientists are finding links between PCBs and some of these diseases in West Anniston. The latest: diabetes, a serious disease that involves dangerous levels of sugar in the blood.
“This was a community of sharecroppers and the production waste was thrown into the ground, into the floodplain,” said Allen Silverstone, a PCBs expert at State University of New York Upstate Medical University who was lead author of the diabetes study. “So they ate this stuff from 1929 until at least 1990 – even though they stopped production in ’71-’72 – because the ground was just loaded with this stuff.”
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