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Rachel's Environment and Health News
#329 - How We Got Here -- Part 2:
Who Will Take Responsibility
by Peter Montague
March 18, 1993
The story of PCB's is a morality play for our time.
PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) were discovered during the
19th century, when petroleum was still more of a curiosity
than a recognized foundation for the world's most powerful
civilization. As the automobile came into wider use during
this century (Henry Ford invented the assembly line around
1910), the demand for gasoline grew. As gasoline was
extracted from crude oil, great quantities of other chemicals,
like benzene, were left over. Chemists started playing around
with these chemicals, to see if something useful could be
made from smelly by-products, like benzene.
If you heat benzene under the right conditions, you can glue
two benzene rings together, creating diphenyl. If you then
expose the diphenyl to chlorine gas under the right
conditions, you can create chlorinated diphenyls, or
biphenyls as we call them today. Adding more or less
chlorine gives compounds with differing properties, and thus
PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls, all 75 of them) came into
being. They aren't soluble in water, they don't burn, they don't
conduct electricity, they do not degrade during use, and they
conduct heat very well--viola! An excellent candidate for a
variety of uses in the burgeoning fields of electric power
equipment and electronics.
By 1914 enough PCB's had already escaped into the
environment to leave measurable amounts in the feathers of
birds held in museums today.
By the mid-1930s, as we saw earlier (RHWN #327)
Monsanto was producing PCB's commercially and PCB's had
created a public health problem sufficient in size to attract
academic researchers, the U.S. Public Health Service, and
several large industrial producers and users of PCB's.
In 1936, a senior official with the U.S. Public Health Service
described a wife and child, both of whom had developed
chloracne, a combination of blackheads and "pustules,"
merely from contact with a worker's clothes. The same
official wrote, "In addition to these skin lesions, symptoms
of systemic poisoning have occurred among workers
inhaling these fumes."
By 1947, E.C. Barnes of Westinghouse's medical department
wrote, in an internal company memo, that long-term
exposure to PCB fumes "may produce internal bodily injury
which may be disabling or could be fatal."
By 1959, the assistant director of Monsanto's Medical
Department would write to the Administrator of Industrial
Hygiene at Westinghouse saying, "...sufficient exposure,
whether by inhalation of vapors or skin contact, can result in
chloracne which I think we must assume could be an
indication of a more systemic injury if the exposure were
allowed to continue."
In 1968, when 1300 residents of Kyushu, Japan, fell ill after
eating rice contaminated with PCB's, the world's public health
establishment woke up from a long sleep and began to
examine PCB's, which by this time were everywhere.
In late 1971, a group of Westinghouse staff met to discuss
PCB's and they noted that PCB's concentrate in the food
chain. A memo summarizing the meeting said, "It was
generally concluded that... there is sufficient evidence that
pcbs can be deleterious to the health of animal and human life
and that the risks of ignoring the evidence that does exist
was [sic] inappropriate for Westinghouse." Yet, the 1971
memo recommended continued use of PCB's.
Nearly 20 years later, in the late 1980's, researchers began to
find that workers exposed to PCB's were dying of skin
cancer and, perhaps, of brain cancer. Westinghouse and
Monsanto maintain that they always informed their workers
completely about the hazards of PCB's, but during the 1990's,
workers have begun to sue for damages, saying the
companies misled them.
Recently in a court in Travis County, Texas, Westinghouse
released a 22-page memo that bears no date, but which
company officials say was written by a Westinghouse staff
lawyer in 1987 or 1988. In the memo, the Westinghouse
lawyer describes extensive paper and microfilm records held
by the Westinghouse Industrial Hygiene Department: "The
majority of the documents in Industrial Hygiene's files are
potential 'smoking gun' documents," the memo says. The
memo goes on, "The files are filled with documentation
which critiques and criticizes, from an industrial hygiene
perspective, Westinghouse manufacturing and
non-manufacturing operations. This documentation often
times points out deficiencies in Westinghouse operations and
suggests recommendations to correct these deficiencies.
Industrial Hygiene's files contain information which details
the various chemical substances used at Westinghouse sites
over the years and often times the inadequacies in
Westinghouse's use and handling of the substances. The files
contain many years of employee test results, some of them
unfavorable," the memo says.
The memo says that Westinghouse executives must ask
certain questions before deciding to keep or destroy the
smoking gun records. The first question is, "What are the
chances of litigation? Is it pending or imminent?" The second
question is, "In the case of litigation, which party would have
the burden of proof?"
The memo then says, "We recommend that all such files
generated prior to 1974 be discarded.... In our opinion, the
risks of keeping these files on the whole substantially exceed
the advantages of maintaining the records...."
Westinghouse officials deny that the memo was acted upon.
They say they still have all the company's files intact.
However, in a lawsuit against Westinghouse by Nevada
Power and Light (NP&L), Westinghouse did not produce
documents, such as correspondence between Westinghouse
and Monsanto, requested by NP&L in a "discovery"
proceeding. Monsanto, on the other hand, did produce
correspondence with Westinghouse officials.  NP&L is
suing Westinghouse, G.E. and Monsanto for $48.5 million in
compensatory damages for costs the utility says it incurred
because of PCB's in electric power equipment.
Furthermore, in sworn testimony in the NP&L case, three
Westinghouse employees or former employees described
how files that they maintained about PCB's were taken from
them by members of Westinghouse legal staff in the 1980's
and never returned to them.
It is not clear why Westinghouse handed over the "smoking
gun" memo to opposing counsel in the Texas suit. In any
case, Westinghouse attorneys tried to have the document
declared "privileged" so that it would remain under wraps.
On February 9, 1993, Texas Judge Paul R. Davis ruled
against Westinghouse, saying the memo "falls within the
crime/fraud exemption to privileged documents" under Texas
law because, the Judge said, the memo was "prepared, and
describe[s] a plan, to commit fraud on the courts of this
nation." Westinghouse denies fraudulent intention, but
destroying documents that might be needed in foreseeable
litigation is forbidden under U.S. law.
Westinghouse will have many opportunities to redeem its
good name in the next few years. If company officials still
have all their company records dating back to the 1930's,
they will be able to produce relevant documents during
"discovery" proceedings in dozens of lawsuits now
impending or already filed. More than a thousand individuals
have already filed lawsuits against Westinghouse, seeking
compensation for alleged damages from workplace
During this '90s, the PCB morality play will move through
the courts, where Chapter 11 bankruptcy may be the only
way out for the purveyors of PCB's.
Some may see in this history the malevolent machinations of
corporate criminals. But others may find in this story
well-meaning individuals trapped in circumstances they
believe forced them to make choices that they, as individuals,
could never condone.
In RHWN #327 we heard General Electric's F.R. Kaimer
describe the HUMAN reaction of G.E. executives to the
disfigurement and pain of GE workers exposed to PCB's:
"[W]e had 50 other men in very bad condi-tion as far as the
acne was concerned. The first reaction that several of our
executives had was to throw it out--get it out of our plant.
They didn't want anything like that for treating wire. But that
was easily said but not so easily done. We might just as well
have thrown our business to the four winds and said, 'We'll
close up,' because there was no substitute and there is none
today in spite of all the efforts we have made through our
own research laboratories to find one."
In the end, it does not matter what motivated the actors in
our PCB story. Whether they were motivated by good or
evil, the necessary remedy is the same.
As a society, and as a species, we cannot survive the
launching of many more families of chemicals like PCB's or
CFC's. Yet the corporate form of organization shields those
who launch such chemicals, preventing them AS
INDIVIDUALS from feeling the consequences of their
actions. The way out of this thicket is to give back liability to
all individuals, removing the corporate shield that prevents
individuals from feeling the consequences of their own
actions. Through reform of the corporate charter, we can
return to everyone their essential human-ness, their
responsibility for their own choices in their own lives.
Back to the top
 Robert Risebrough and Virginia Brodine, "More Letters in
the Wind," in Sheldon Novick and Dorothy Cottrell, editors,
OUR WORLD IN PERIL: AN ENVIRONMENT REVIEW
(Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1971), pgs. 243-255.
 E.C. Barnes quoted in Michael Schroeder, "Did
Westinghouse Keep Mum on PCBs?" BUSINESS WEEK
August 12, 1991, pgs. 68-70.
 Letter from Elmer P. Wheeler of Monsanto, to H. Wilbur
Speicher of Westinghouse, October 23, 1959.
 Memo from G.W. Wiener, Research Director, Power
Systems, Westinghouse, titled "Minutes of pcb status," dated
December 28, 1971.
 Stuart Mieher, "Westinghouse Lawyer Urged in '88 Note
That Toxic- Safety Records Be Destroyed." WALL STREET
JOURNAL February 26, 1993, pg. A-4.
 Undated "smoking gun" memo by Westinghouse attorney
Jeffrey Bair and C.W. Bickerstaff, then Manager of
Corporate Industrial Hygiene for Westinghouse.
 Cecil K. Drinker and others, "The Problem of Possible
Systemic Effects From Certain Chlorinated Hydrocarbons,"
THE JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HYGIENE AND
TOXICOLOGY Vol. 19 (September, 1937), pgs. 283- 311.
Descriptor terms: pcbs; benzene; monsanto; phs;
westinghouse; chloracne; kyushu, japan; japan; tx; nevada
power & light; fraud; ge; petroleum; chlorinated
Back to the top
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