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A Terrible Thing to Waste

Bryce Emanuel | January 23, 2022

Every neighborhood claims to be a safe environment for its residents. But what evidence do they have to support this? Are these claims even legitimate? What if the very ground and water on which your neighborhood resides was an environment that was detrimental to your health and the health of your loved ones? This was the reality for the citizens of Anniston, Alabama, since Anniston had the misfortune of being in close proximity to local industrial chemicals manufacturing company, Monsanto

Monsanto profited for four decades off of the production of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), highly toxic industrial compounds that pose serious health risks to humans. PCBs are not only neuro-toxic, but disruptive to the endocrine system, which affects development through disturbing the functioning of hormones. PCBs are also not biodegradable, meaning they don’t break up or separate into chemical arrangements. Therefore, PCBs have persistent effects on human health, which in adults have shown to be associated with an increased risk of cancers of the digestive tract, liver, and skin, as well as reproductive deficiencies. PCBs have also been found to lead to reduced IQ, and negatively affect hormonal and cognitive systems in children.. However, Monsanto went so far as to conduct a company study on the effects of PCBs on mouse models, and after discovering the emergence of tumors in mice, they ordered to change the experimental results from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to be carcinogenic.” For 36 years since 1935, Monsanto had been able to dispose of tens of thousands of pounds of PCBs into creeks or on the grounds around Anniston. 

Fortunately, these crimes against the city of Anniston didn’t go unaddressed. David Baker, a local Anniston activist who helped to usher in accountability against the manufacturing company, pushed to offer empirical evidence of the crimes that Monsanto had committed against the citizens of Anniston. Baker experienced the implications of the illicit operations of Monsanto firsthand, through the death of his 16-year-old brother Terry. In 1970, Terry died of a wide array of diseases that usually emerge in old age: lung cancer, hardened arteries, and a brain tumor. To investigate the abnormality, Baker, through his organization “Community Against Pollution,” urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test the grounds and water of Anniston, as well as the blood of its residents for levels of PCBs. The EPA was at a loss for words to find that the residents of Anniston had the highest recorded levels of PCBs in the nation in their bloodstream. This was in stark contrast to the industry research stating that “Fifty bathtubs’ full” of PCBs at low concentration are required to do harm. In 2000, this lie was further debunked by researchers who found that at low concentrations, PCBs can harm children’s nervous systems development.

Shortly after, Monsanto had class actions filed against them by Anniston residents, where residents claimed that Monsanto knowingly contaminated their local water supply with PCBs. Around the same time, Monsanto liquidated its industrial chemicals departments into a separate company called Solutia. The class action lawsuits resulted in two settlement proceedings, one in 2001 for forty-three million dollars, and in 2003 for six hundred million dollars. Both Monsanto and Solutia had agreed to pay the settlements; however, unsurprisingly, Solutia filed for bankruptcy around the same time. Although the settlements were received, most of the capital from the case went to lawyers and relief efforts within the community, efforts that could contribute little to address the already deeply rooted effects that PCBs had on the city of Anniston. This pushed Baker to seek the assistance of recently famed Los Angeles lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. Not too long after his securing of a not-guilty verdict for O.J. Simpson, Cochran helped to acquire compensation in service to the citizens of Anniston for property damage and a health clinic to address the adverse health effects that PCBs had on them. This resulted in Cochrane winning a settlement of three hundred million dollars from Monsanto and Solutia for the residents of Anniston. 

Even though there could be no price put on the lives of the citizens of Anniston, this was a huge step in addressing how the economic interests of industries ultimately play a huge role in the lives of the people in the communities in close proximity to them. The Anniston Monsanto case showcases how even the field of science can fall prey to the institution of capitalism, spinning a narrative that is only in service to the accruement of economic capital. When it comes to our local environment, it is through the significance of divestment. By severing ties with institutions that prioritize the economic bottom line over sustainability, Vanderbilt slates itself as an institution with the best interests of the sustained and ameliorated existence of our world. Hopefully, with Vanderbilt helping to usher in the change, we can push to have other institutions like us follow suit, building a support system for creating a sustainable future.

Works Cited

A Neighborhood of Poisoned Dreams”

PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls

Monsanto Hid Decades of Pollution

The effects of PCBs and dioxins on child health,lip%20have%20also%20been%20described.

A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind” – Harriet A. Washington