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The following article is reproduced without permission from Rachel's Environment & Health News, a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation :
Rachel's Environment and Health News

#329 - How We Got Here -- Part 2:
Who Will Take Responsibility
For PCB's

by Peter Montague
Annapolis, Maryland
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.[1] 

                 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."[2] 

                 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."[3] 

                 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."[4] 

                 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."[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 

                 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. [4] 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."[7] 

                 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


                 [1] Robert Risebrough and Virginia Brodine, "More Letters in
                 the Wind," in Sheldon Novick and Dorothy Cottrell, editors,
                 (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1971), pgs. 243-255. 

                 [2] E.C. Barnes quoted in Michael Schroeder, "Did
                 Westinghouse Keep Mum on PCBs?" BUSINESS WEEK
                 August 12, 1991, pgs. 68-70. 

                 [3] Letter from Elmer P. Wheeler of Monsanto, to H. Wilbur
                 Speicher of Westinghouse, October 23, 1959. 

                 [4] Memo from G.W. Wiener, Research Director, Power
                 Systems, Westinghouse, titled "Minutes of pcb status," dated
                 December 28, 1971. 

                 [5] Stuart Mieher, "Westinghouse Lawyer Urged in '88 Note
                 That Toxic- Safety Records Be Destroyed." WALL STREET
                 JOURNAL February 26, 1993, pg. A-4. 

                 [6] Undated "smoking gun" memo by Westinghouse attorney
                 Jeffrey Bair and C.W. Bickerstaff, then Manager of
                 Corporate Industrial Hygiene for Westinghouse. 

                 [7] Cecil K. Drinker and others, "The Problem of Possible
                 Systemic Effects From Certain Chlorinated Hydrocarbons,"
                 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

Rachel's Environment & Health News is a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403. Fax (410) 263-8944; E-mail: Back issues available by E-mail; to get instructions, send Email to with the single word HELP in the message. Subscriptions are free. To subscribe, E-mail the words SUBSCRIBE RACHEL-NEWS YOUR FULL NAME to: NOTICE: Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic version of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS free of charge even though it costs our organization considerable time and money to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this service free. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or $500.00). Please send your tax- deductible contribution to: Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036. Please do not send credit card information via E-mail. For further information about making tax-deductible contributions to E.R.F. by credit card please phone us toll free at 1-888- 2RACHEL. --Peter Montague, Editor

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