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Daily News Blog

03
Oct

Chicago PCBs Lawsuit Seeks Pesticide Corporation’s Accountability for Harm to Marginalized Communities

Chicago, the site of a lawsuit against Monsanto for alleged pollution of the city with PCBs, despite knowledge of their harmful effectss

(Beyond Pesticides, October 3, 2023) On September 19, 2023, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and Corporation Counsel Mary B. Richardson-Lowry took legal action against agrochemical giant, Monsanto, filing a lawsuit that alleges the corporation’s role in polluting Chicago with Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) decades ago, despite knowing the chemicals’ detrimental effects.  

PCBs are identified as “forever chemicals” due to their environmental persistence. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these chemicals “do not readily break down once in the environment.” They cycle through air, soil, and water and can travel long distances, with PCBs found worldwide. 

They pose serious health risks as they can accumulate in the environment and within organisms including plants, food crops, sea life, and humans. Those who consume fish from contaminated waterways are exposed to PCBs as the chemical bioaccumulates in the fish population. 

PCBs are man-made organic chemicals composed of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine atoms. They were first manufactured and sold in 1929 by the Swann Chemical Corporation and subsequently came under the ownership of Monsanto Chemical Company in 1935. Due to their non-flammability, stability, and electrical insulating properties, PCBs quickly found widespread use. Their applications included use in electrical equipment, paints, plastics, and carbonless copy paper.  

PCBs were also instrumental in the pesticide industry. According to O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates, researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “discovered that the addition of certain oils and/or chemicals to a pesticide formulation prior to its application could inhibit the volatilization and solubilization.” These additives increased the amount of time an application of pesticides would remain effective. PCBs were among the most effective chemical additives, making it a common addition to pesticide formulas.  

Despite the extensive risk posed by PCBs, it was not until 1979 that the Toxic Substances Control Act prohibited PCB production and officially acknowledged their risks to human health and the environment. 

However, the ban came too late. By 1979, PCBs, often sold under the name of Aroclor, had long been popular in the Rust Belt, and companies like General Electric had been illegally disposing the chemical into waterways by the millions of pounds.  

It was not until 2013 that the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified PCBs as likely carcinogens, a significant recognition arriving 84 years after their inception and 34 years after the ban.  

The City of Chicago claims Monsanto’s role extends beyond PCB production, as the corporation is accused of being aware of the hazards posed by PCBs as early as the 1960s but continued manufacturing until 1977. This allegation aligns with Monsanto’s history of concealing adverse effects associated with its products. 

Due to this intentional misleading by Monsanto, Chicago, and several other states and cities, including Oregon, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Ohio, New Jersey, and Washington state are seeking legal retribution from the corporation.  

Mayor Johnson and Corporation Counsel Richardson-Lowry claim Monsanto’s pollution is an environmental justice issue, saying the lasting effects of PCBs have exacerbated inequities in many Chicago neighborhoods. 

Despite the outlawing of PCB production over 40 years ago, Chicago continues to grapple with PCB contamination in its waterways, soils, and air. The Chicago River and surrounding communities remain compromised, prompting advisories against swimming and fish consumption.  

And as Indigenous Peoples Day approaches, it is essential to recognize the injustices experienced by numerous Indigenous communities because of the actions of pesticide corporations such as Monsanto. 

The St. Regis Mohawk tribe in Akwesasne, situated in Franklin County, New York, shares a story that mirrors the experiences of many who have been adversely affected by PCBs over decades. In this case, the tribe’s connection to the St. Lawrence River as a vital lifeline for sustenance, including food and irrigation for livestock and crops, was compromised due to its proximity to an illegal PCB dumping site operated by General Electric.  

During the peak usage of PCBs in the manufacturing industry, General Electric was illicitly disposing millions of pounds of PCBs into local waterways. Downstream, the Mohawk tribe remained unaware that their essential water source had been contaminated. As early as the 1960s, Mohawk farmers began noticing health issues in their livestock, such as lameness and swelling. The lifespan of their animals also drastically declined once manufacturing began at the plant. And when concerns were raised about potential poisoning, the New York State Department of Health dismissed all concerns.  

As a result, women were forced to stop breastfeeding their children for fear of passing chemicals through breastmilk, and the community could not consume fish, a staple in their diet. Their whole way of life was upended without consent as they endured this contamination’s effects unwittingly. 

In many instances across the nation, indigenous communities, like the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, have had to grapple with government agencies’ slow response to their plight, leaving people who are deeply connected to the land and water to face environmental and cultural disruptions. 

PCBs are a reminder that environmental damage often disproportionately affects marginalized communities, including Indigenous peoples. These communities, while quietly enduring the effects of pollution, have often faced barriers to receiving the help and recognition they deserve.  

The lawsuits against Monsanto and the ongoing struggles of Indigenous communities signal a broader need for environmental justice and corporate accountability. The PCB contamination of waterways, from the Chicago River to the St. Lawrence River, highlights the lasting consequences of unchecked industrial practices.  

As we commemorate the upcoming Indigenous Peoples Day, let us reflect on the urgent need for environmental justice and the collective responsibility to protect our natural resources and the communities that depend on them. It is a reminder that the legacy of pollution, like PCBs, leaves a lasting imprint on our environment and society, and addressing it requires unity, accountability, and a commitment to a cleaner, more equitable future. Please support Beyond Pesticides’ mission of protecting public health and the environment by ending the use of pesticides like those manufactured by Bayer-Monsanto. See Beyond Pesticides’ webpage to learn more about the link between pesticides and environmental/agricultural justice and help support other marginalized communities affected by harmful pesticide exposure. 

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.  

Source: Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Sues Monsanto, The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community 

 

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