Once the world's most notorious polluter, General Electric
discovers the cure for cancer. From March 1999.
BEFORE I STARTED writing about astrology, sex and how not to sleep through life, I covered environmental news. In short, I investigated and wrote articles about how polluted the planet really is, and how several American companies made a fortune as they lied and poisoned their workers.
So you can imagine how excited I was when I opened The New York Times last week and read that General Electric has discovered that its once-deadly PCBs -- industrial chemicals it dumped into people, the Earth, the air, rivers and oceans world-wide for 60 years -- actually prevent cancer (NYT, March 10, 1999, page A14).
That's right. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are good for you. Once believed to kill you every which way, it seems that strange things can happen in the laboratories of science. Fortunately, this is a column that deals with mystical issues, for it's a genuine miracle.
The study, fully paid for by GE and authored by an eminent scientist named Dr. Renate D. Kimbrough, examined the lives of 7,000 workers who were heavily exposed to PCBs while employed at two GE equipment factories in upstate New York between 1946 and 1976. Of those 7,000 workers, 1195 had died, and the study compared the causes of death of these workers to national death statistics.
Called a "mortality study," the report found that while 400 of the 1195 workers were expected to die of cancer, only 353 of them had actually done so. Hence, GE saved the lives of 47 people by exposing them to deadly toxins. According to the study's statistics, exposure to PCBs prevents 11.75% of human cancers (curiously, prior research has shown that 100% of all exposed rats die of cancer, as do most other animals). News reports about this study during the past week have said that PCBs now "pose little risk" to humans, but I am wondering why they all missed the real scoop, the long-awaited cancer cure. If it's true, then people should be flocking to toxic waste dumps to eat the dirt and drink from puddles.
Amazingly, Dr. Kimbrough, the study's lead author, was the very scientist who, when working for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1975, first discovered that PCBs cause liver cancer in female rats, which was a landmark finding. But shortly after, her solid-looking scientific credentials got the attention of GE, Monsanto and other companies, for whom she now consults, testifies in court and offers her philosophical wisdom at a very respectable rate of pay. Her job includes explaining to judges, juries and journalists that the danger is really not so bad, or that it's nonexistent. Though her own highly-respected research has documented many health effects in the past, when I interviewed her last week, she said the only known health risks from PCBs were dry skin.
At the moment, Kimbrough has an important job, because there's a big problem in New York State. GE's PCBs poisoned many tens of thousands of factory workers and neighbors, and the chemicals soaked clear through two industrial plants into the land next to the Hudson River, where they continue to leak rather profusely. For 40 years, GE directly poured scrap PCBs into the river, poisoning fish all the way downstream and out into the Atlantic Ocean a hundred miles away. Several years ago, after a long battle, a federal court ordered GE to pay $7 million to Long Island fishermen whose industry the company had destroyed with PCBs. Now the EPA is close to determining whether GE should finally be forced to clean up the river, which is considered the nation's largest federal Superfund site, or environmental disaster area.
It was into this highly-charged, highly-ontaminated political environment, with countless billions at stake in potential moral, legal and environmental damages, that GE dropped its latest good news, which was dutifully reported by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The New York Times and many other media around the world. Why clean up the river when PCBs are good for you?
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For half a century, oily, syrup-like PCB fluids were the chicken broth of industry, a highly versatile "base stock" that could be cooked into just about anything. Because they did not burn so easily, they were very useful in high-temperature environments. The chemicals were manufactured into all kinds of electrical equipment (mainly transformers and capacitors) as well as wire insulation, industrial waxes, fire-retardant in children's clothes, in dyes in many other kinds of fabrics, in ink and paper, and as the base of some plastics and surgical supplies including breast implants. In their 45 years of use, they ended up in every industrial operation, from food manufacturing (as heat-transfer oil in the coils of potato chip fryers, for example) to paints, to dental compounds.
This massive overuse of one chemical -- which was manufactured in America by one company, Monsanto Chemical Co., and used by many others, including GE -- ran onward more or less unnoticed until 1966. That was when a Swedish scientist, Dr. Sören Jensen, discovered that an unknown toxin chemically similar to the pesticide DDT had contaminated everything from ocean water to the hair of his infant child, who had consumed only air and her mother's breast milk. Research by Jensen and other documented that the largest does of PCBs that most people get comes directly from the mother, and not coincidentally, Jensen extracted PCB contamination from all of the human blood samples he was studying, and he found it in his own body, and in the paint of the ship he was using to take ocean samples. In 1966, after more than 30 years of industrial use, the magazine New Scientist printed the first publicly-available article about PCB dangers, titled, "Report of a New Chemical Hazard."
But of course, the hazard was anything but new. Within the files of corporate managers of General Electric, Westinghouse, and Monsanto, information had been pouring in from company laboratories and factories over the years about how deadly the chemicals actually were, but the press never caught on. As early as 1937, the electrical industry, including its giant, General Electric, was fully aware that PCBs could be deadly to workers, and the companies knew that many people were very sick. And they knew that exposure poisoned the blood and internal organs, even though workers had only touched or breathed what were then believed to be low concentrations of the chemicals.
Without telling government regulators, employees or the press, GE's top managers maintained meticulous records of the problem. One astonishing document which has surfaced through lawsuits from the company's files is a 1956 bibliography cataloging every known scientific safety study about PCBs and similar compounds; GE had collected 43 such reports, dating back as far as to 1899, one full century ago (many thousands now exist).
But it wasn't until 1966 that Dr. Jensen, the independent Swedish scientist, discovered the presence of the chemicals in everyone and everywhere he looked. And it was not until a full decade later, in 1976, after serous problems had been documented with food contamination leading to birth defects, and tragic problems in wildlife, that Congress finally passed a law forbidding their manufacture and distribution as "an imminent threat to human health and the environment."
According to court records, part of the reason for the 10-year delay involved numerous instances of the companies' lying about the safety concerns in testimony to the government, in press releases, and numerous instances of manipulated (made-up) science to hide the toxic effects.
The most famous revelation of scientific fraud involved a company called Industrial Bio-Test Labs of Northbrook, Illinois, a supposedly independent, federally-approved safety-testing service used by companies to prove the safety of their products. Far from being independent, though, court records show that IBT Labs directly collaborated with Monsanto on the creation of several fake cancer studies which intentionally concealed the fact that PCBs caused tumors in animals -- studies which were used as part of the campaign to persuade regulators that there was not really a problem. Yet this information did not come out until long after PCBs were finally banned. Three officials from IBT Labs and Monsanto were sent to federal prison for fraud after the longest criminal trial in US history.
So in many ways, the history of PCBs is the history of scientific miracles, and the beat goes on. Looking at the newest miracle study, some problems with scientific methodology are apparent.
For one thing, it's now understood that if cancer rates in a heavily exposed population are lower than those in the rest of the country, then something besides cancer probably killed the workers first -- most likely heart disease, according to Carol van Strum, who has been researching toxics issues for Greenpeace and other organizations for 30 years. As Van Strum and others have pointed out, if you want to prevent cancer, "the best way is to step out in front of a moving truck when you're young."
At least then the cause of death is clear. But with death certificates, which Kimbrough and GE used to determine the cause of death of its emplyees, it's not so clear; for example, unless an autopsy is done, it's impossible to tell whether a heart-attack victim also had cancer, so many cancer cases may have been missed -- a problem that is no secret to medical science.
And while it's great news that PCBs "don't cause cancer," what about all the other documented PCB health effects, including neurological damage, reproductive diseases (such as endometriosis), birth defects (such as small penises), genetic damage, hormone disorders, and many other known problems ignored by the GE study, and by the researcher in her comments?
Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of epidemiology and toxicology at the University of Maryland, took issue with Kimbrough's statement that the only known human health effect from PCB exposure was dry skin.
"What level causes a particular health effect is arguable," Silbergeld said in a Planet Waves interview March 22. "But to say that no level of exposure is associated with any health effects is an amazing position to take...to say there is not any outcome associted with any dose is astounding."
Silbergeld, who has been considered one of the world's leading experts on PCB exposure for many years, said that Kimbrough was "caught in a time warp on the issue of carcinogenicy," or the cancer-causing properties of PCBs, which are only one helth effect, and are essentially old news. Silbergeld said that the scientific community is now focused on issues such as developmental defects associated with PCB exposure.
David McCrea, an attorney in Bloomington, Indiana who represents brain-cancer victims who worked at Westinghouse PCB plants there, said her lack of acknowledgement that PCBs have adverse health effects on humans means that Kimbrough "is coming from a different universe," and added that her research did not deserve to be taken seriously, in part because General Electric had paid for it.
But as for today, "science" is certain there's not a serious problem. So if you want to help prevent cancer, scoop up some mud from the banks of the Hudson, rub it all over, and eat a little every day.
Eventually, the river will be clean.++
For additional information on this issue, see CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE by Eric Francis: or, for an ecological adventure, search the Rachel database.