Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Jun 11, 2016

Poison lurking in schools

Co-produced with PRX Logo


Across the country, tens of thousands of public schools could be contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls – compounds more commonly known as PCBs, which were used widely in building materials such as window caulk. PCBs have been linked to everything from skin conditions to cancer. On this hour of Reveal, we take a closer look at this sleeper chemical that was banned in 1979 but still poses a serious health risk to kids today.

No one knows how many schools have this ticking time bomb lurking in their windows, but reporter David DesRoches of WNPR in Connecticut starts us off with the story of a man who used to put PCBs in schools and now is working to get them out. People call him the “repentant caulker.” He secretly tests caulk in school windows to see if it contains dangerous PCBs. Not everyone’s happy with him: If PCBs are found, they have to be removed – and that could cost big money.

PCBs have shown up in schools built before 1979, including in affluent Malibu, California. Southern California Public Radio’s Stephanie O’Neill takes us to the front lines of the outrage. Parents who were worried that the school district wasn’t doing enough to protect kids and staff have taken the case to court. A teacher who calls herself “Cancer Patient No. 1” tells O’Neill her story.

So how did PCBs first find their way into the environment in the U.S.? DesRoches visits the small town of Anniston, Alabama. In 1929, the Swann Chemical Co. started making PCBs in a small factory there. In 1935, Swann was bought out by another chemical company. You might know it: Monsanto.

Today, we recognize Monsanto Co. as a global agricultural giant. Besides being a producer of herbicides such as Roundup, it’s at the forefront of biotechnology. But half a century ago, PCBs were Monsanto’s golden ticket – the company was the country’s sole manufacturer of the compound.

After millions of dollars were spent cleaning up the soil in Anniston, tests by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that PCB levels in the outdoor air haven’t changed at all in a decade. It’s this lasting Monsanto legacy that led Anniston residents to sue the company – and they won. The case was settled with a $600 million payout, but residents saw barely any of this money. Most got less than $7,000 each.

So why isn’t the EPA doing more to protect people from PCB exposure? Former employees say it’s because the agency has a history of making decisions that benefit industry. Considering that emerging science is showing that PCBs are more dangerous than we thought, this is a cause for concern.

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • David Axelrod, “Tensity” from “The Edge: David Axelrod At Capitol Records 1966-1970” (Blue Note)
  • Miami Slice, “Cloud Nine” from “Brooklyn 2 Brooklyn EP” (Midnight Side)
  • Jim Briggs, “Hurricane Mystery (variation 1)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Atlas Sound, “Dream Color” from “Bedroom Databank Vol. 3”
  • Atlas Sound, “How To Pass the Time” from “Bedroom Databank Vol. 4”
  • Atlas Sound, “Moonroof” from “Bedroom Databank Vol. 3”
  • Digi G'Alessio, “Virus from the Sea” from “The Rain Book” (Pitjamajusto)
  • Jim Briggs, “Here Come the Renegades” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • David Harrow meets Doctor Dub, “Downtown Dubbing” from “Oicho Dubclash” (LCL (LibreCommeLair))
  • Robodub, “dub04” from “Handmade Dub” (Classwar Karaoke)
  • Jim Briggs, “This is the Law” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Waves Were Crashing” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • David Axelrod, “The Edge” from “The Edge: David Axelrod At Capitol Records 1966-1970” (Blue Note)
  • Billy Torello, “Mai senza i Guanti” from “Ultime Notizie Dalla Tartaruga – Chitarra Vol. 2” (Spettro Rec)
  • Colin Langenus, “Winter Alone In An Old House” from “This Is Everyday” (Mass Dist)
  • Micahel Howard, “Tiny Birch Basket” from “The Martyr and the Magician” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “LaBranche” from “Bayou Birds”
  • Girls in Love, “Slight of Hand” from “Fum”
  • Miami Slice, “Feel the Beat” from “Disco Cuts” (loveandtonicrecords)
  • David Axelrod, “Songs of Innocence” from “The Edge: David Axelrod At Capitol Records 1966-1970” (Blue Note)
  • Chris Bathgate, “Borders (Instrumental)” from “Salt Year (instrumentals)” (Quite Scientific Records)
  • Yvette Flores, “Happy Birthday”
  • Jeff Ertz, “Bed of Stones” from “So it Goes EP” (self-released)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Report and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In this hour we're going to talk about something we thought we put to rest some 40 years ago. In fact, we literally buried it but now it looks like it's coming back to haunt us. I'm talking about something from the '70's. Ahhh, the '70's. It was a magical age. They gave us things like the birth of Al Letson, Disco, Watergate, the energy crisis. There was also an idea that started taking hold called environmentalism. It was beginning to dawn on people that just maybe there was a serious price to be paid for all the scientific advances that had landed us on the moon, built those fast cars and highways and made America an economic powerhouse.

Speaker 2:

X-rays, smoking, chemicals. Scientists now feel that up to 90% of all cancers are environmentally caused.

[00:01:00]
Al Letson:

 

Cancer rates were starting to climb and scientists were bracing for an imminent chemical catastrophe.

Speaker 2:

Is there a time-bomb effect caused by the interaction of chemicals and toxic substances that we're just now finding out about ...

Speaker 3:

like a delayed action time bomb.

Speaker 2:

Time bomb.

Speaker 3:

Time bomb.

Speaker 2:

Time bomb. No question about it at all. A real sleeper in terms of health problems in this country.

Al Letson:

Some of the scariest of these toxic substances were the chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls.

Speaker 2:

PCBs for short. These chemicals have caused infertility, gastric disorders and skin lesions in wildlife and it is feared they may be linked to liver cancer and ...

Al Letson:

 

[00:02:00]

PCBs were banned in 1979. There were a lot of scares over the years but eventually they died down but almost 40 years later we're finding they're still with us. See, PCBs help make stronger, more flexible construction material. When they were mixed with caulk they were just right for brick buildings, the kind thousands of schools are made of. Remember the baby boom that began right after World War II? All those kids needed schoolrooms and so America kicked off a massive school building spree.

 

By the time PCBs were banned in the late '70's, tens of thousands of public schools had been built and today no one knows how many of those schools have a ticking time bomb, toxic PCBs. David DesRoche of WNPR Connecticut gets us started with the story of a man who used to put PCBs in schools and is now working to get them out.

David DesRoche:

I'm in Boston to meet George [Waymouth 00:02:39]. It's good to see you. How are you?

George:

Good to see you finally.

David DesRoche:

 

[00:03:00]

George was a waterproofer. He's 64 and retired now but in the 1960's and 70's he worked on hundreds of new buildings including public schools. The best product at the time was caulk that was made up of PCBs. He'd use a large [caulkant 00:02:58] to seal around windows and between brick joints and other seams. The PCBs would make the caulk stronger and more elastic. He guesses that he used PCB caulk on at least half of the schools he worked on.

George:

[If I was 00:03:11] on that building and watch kids going in and out of it made my day. See young kids going in that school. Gee, well, sure. I'm helping to build you a new school and this, that and the other thing. If I knew for one second that I was doing something that was detrimental to their health ...

David DesRoche:

When George found out that the PCBs that he used could be harming children ...

George:

It's devastating, you know. It really is.

David DesRoche:

He came up with an idea to make amends. He started going on clandestine missions to test the caulk on the outside of schools he worked on.

George:

A couple of minutes to walk up here.

David DesRoche:

George takes me around the city to some schools and shows me how he did it.

[00:04:00]
George:

 

This is a plastic bag, this is a plastic bag. Inside the plastic bag is my knife.

David DesRoche:

He'd use the knife to cut out samples of caulk from between bricks on the side of the school.

George:

I raise the knife and I go in and I go zip, zip. Turn this inside out, slip this back in my pocket, close up my bag, pat my dog on the head, good boy. This is how I did it.

David DesRoche:

The schools hadn't given him permission to do this so he'd bring his dog along so people would think he was just out for a stroll.

George:

"Oh, look. He's picking up that dog's poop. He's a good guy. We won't bother him."

David DesRoche:

George has tested dozens of schools for PCBs all on his own time. It cost about $50 per sample. He did it so often he got on a first-name basis with the people of the testing company who started calling him the repentant caulker. George would send the results to the schools and the EPA but only a few schools ever did anything about it. Most ignored him. As for the EPA ...

George:

They never asked me to go to work for them, let's put it that way. They never said, "Hey, George. We want you to come in and scope out this building."

David DesRoche:

Any commercial building built before 1979 could be contaminated including apartment complexes. Environmental consultants tell me they are aware of the presence of PCBs but very few of their clients do anything about it. That's because finding it can be a huge headache, setting projects back months and sometimes costing millions to fix. That's what happened once when George found PCBs in a commercial building.

George:

This job was shut down for three months. There were a lot of construction workers that were working in there. Upcoming job had to put the floors back, the walls back, the cabinets back and all that stuff that was stopped for three months. That's when I got some phone calls. "You asshole. Didn't I see you on the street?"

David DesRoche:

Proper PCB remediation is expensive and time consuming and so the work around is this. If you don't find them, that is if you don't test for them, you'll never know you have them. It's all about the money, especially for schools. Faced with tight budgets, looking for costly PCBs to get rid of is hardly at the top of any principal's to-do list. Take Clark Elementary School in Hartford, Connecticut. Today three large dumpsters sit outside the school with a bright yellow sticker on each that reads, "Caution. Contains PCBs." At the bottom there's an 800 number to call if there's a spill.

 

In December 2014 Clark School was slated to be renovated. The school officials decided to test for PCBs. They found the school was saturated with them in window caulking, in dust, in fireproofing and paint. It even leached into brand new ceiling tiles. It was so bad they eventually closed the school for good. Five other schools in Hartford have also tested positive. In one case the district replaced a single window but there were 30 other schools in the city that were also built before 1979 and they haven't been tested.

 

Why was Clark shut down? Clark is in a poor neighborhood. It had poor test scores and declining enrollment. When asked them, school officials denied that they used the PCBs as an excuse to close a failing school. Some time after Clark School closed, officials built a chain link fence around it but the playground is still open. On a spring afternoon it's full of kids playing. The PCBs from the window caulk can migrate into the soil but the playground has never been tested. I asked the district if it ever would be but didn't get an answer.

Al Letson:

That was reporter David DesRoche in Hartford, Connecticut. We'll hear more from David later in the show. Now PCBs aren't just an issue in poorer school districts. They've shown up across the country including in one of the wealthiest most privileged cities you can find, Malibu, California. Parents were outraged when they found out. They worry the school district isn't doing enough to protect kids and staff so they've taken the case to court. Stephanie O'Neill of Southern California Public Radio has been following the story.

Steph O’Neill:

Above a stretch of its famous shoreline on the hilltop with peek-a-boo views of the Pacific, you'll find Malibu's public schools. The town's elementary, middle and high schools are located together on a combination campus. PE teacher Lisa Lambert says she was happy to land here a decade ago. Teaching in Malibu is a pretty sweet gig, right?

Lisa:

Yeah, it's a very nice place to work especially teaching physical education. We're outdoors with the ocean view and we have good facilities for the kids to participate in a lot of activities.

Steph O’Neill:

Lisa, who is now 35, says things changed a few years ago after she saw her doctor for a yearly checkup.

Lisa:

During that exam she noticed that there was a nodule on my thyroid and suggested that I have an ultrasound to have it checked out.

Steph O’Neill:

Were you worried when she first told you about that?

Lisa:

I was a little bit worried but usually all the reports say that nodules are 90% not cancerous so I thought well, we'll just go and have it checked out and hopefully it's nothing.

Steph O’Neill:

Lisa's first biopsy was inconclusive and ultimately her surgeon removed half of her thyroid gland to better inspect it. At that point she says she was still confident that everything would turn out fine.

Lisa:

When I went back in a week later he said that the test results came back and it was thyroid cancer.

Steph O’Neill:

Lisa now calls herself cancer patient number one because two months later a second teacher, an 18-year veteran of the high school received the same diagnosis. A few months after that a third teacher got hers. All three of them worked in classrooms with unsafe levels of toxic PCBs in the window caulking.

Lisa:

The other teachers around us were really concerned like there's three of my coworkers having cancer.

Steph O’Neill:

They weren't the only ones who were worried.

Speaker 8:

Parents at Malibu High have been demanding answers about the safety of their school.

Jennifer:

My name is Jennifer deNicola and I am a mom and an activist. I run a nonprofit called America Unites for Kids and our goal is to ensure that all children have an environment to be educated in that will not jeopardize their health.

Steph O’Neill:

Jennifer's in her mid-40s and she wasn't always an activist. In fact about four years ago when she moved to Malibu with her husband Matt and their two kids, she says she was just a typical mom who enjoyed helping out in her kids' classrooms. Today she's a key player in the controversy over how to handle PCBs in Malibu schools and it's one that's led to a lawsuit her organization's filed against the district.

 

It's early February when I first interview Jennifer. We meet at the family home with its front yard overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway. We sit down on bar stools in her kitchen and moments after I push the record button ...

Jennifer:

Hold on. That's my son. Hey, Coop.

Cooper:

Hi.

Steph O’Neill:

Coop or Cooper is 15 years old. He's a high school sophomore who's about to take his driver's permit test later in the afternoon.

Jennifer:

Are these the things that you need to bring, honey?

Cooper:

I need my birth certificate so I have to go see where that is and a DL44 form.

Steph O’Neill:

Cooper heads upstairs to study for his test leaving Jennifer to get back to the story. It's fall of 2013 and the parents get the news that Lisa Lambert and the two other teachers have been diagnosed with cancer.

Jennifer:

Teachers signed a letter saying we think our school is making us sick. Will you test it? Somehow it got into the new and the minute it did, that's when all hell broke loose.

Steph O’Neill:

The parents are scared and they start digging for information. Buried in the minutes of the school committee meeting they find this environmental report from 2010. The report mentions PCB-tainted soil in the campus quad that posed a "unacceptable risk." They do some more digging and find that workers had carted away about a thousand tons of that toxic soil. The district had to remove it before it could spend bond money to do campus renovations. Jennifer says no one told the parents what was in the dirt and Lisa Lambert says the teachers were also kept in the dark.

Lisa:

You'd have to know the terminology, soil remediation to know that that meant that there was toxics. We thought that the soil was being remediated to get ready for construction.

Steph O’Neill:

As word gets out, Malibu's parents including a handful of celebrities, come out in force and demand the district test the campus for PCBs. Initially school district officials agree and they spot test window caulking. Those tests turn up levels of PCBs way higher than allowed by law. Jennifer shows me documents of those tests and before I tell you about them, let me tell you about federal law. It says, "Building materials containing PCBs at or about 50 ppm must be removed." That's 50. Five-zero. The highest level found in Malibu schools?

Jennifer:

570,000 ppm. Over 11,000 times the legal limit found in our window caulking.

Steph O’Neill:

[00:05:00]

Put another way, that means PCBs made up nearly 60% of the caulk in that sample. Earlier in the fall of 2013 the school district calls a Town Hall Meeting. Jennifer tells me about five ...

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05]

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Steph O’Neill:

13 the school district calls a town hall meeting. Jennifer tells me about 500 people attend the standing room only event.

Jennifer:

It's a packed house. People are sitting on the floor, you've got Cindy Crawford sitting on the floor and Ricky Schroeder sitting there. A parent goes up and makes a comment, "My children both get headaches every single day. When they're not in school they don't get headaches, but when they're in school they do. Over the summer they don't."

 

She turned around and she said, "How many other parents have their children complaining about headaches or migraines?" 75 percent of the room raised their hands. At that point my friends and I looked at each other, my husband and I and said there's a serious problem going on here.

Steph O’Neill:

 

[00:15:00]

After that meeting, dozens of families begin pulling their kids out of Malibu's high achieving public schools. Jennifer starts homeschooling their daughter Samantha with a group of other families, but Cooper's in high school and he doesn't want to leave his friends so his parents cave and let him stay.

 

I call up Doctor David Carpenter. He's a pioneer of PCB research at the University of Albany in New York. He's also testifying pro bono on behalf of Malibu's parents and teachers. He tells me that studies do link PCBs to nervous system damage which can cause migraines and other more serious illnesses.

David Carpenter:

PCBs have been rated as proven known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization. PCBs also increase the risk of a great variety of other diseases.

Steph O’Neill:

The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies PCBs as a probable human carcinogen. It also links them to an array of other serious conditions involving nearly every system of the body, including the endocrine system where the thyroid gland lives.

 

[00:16:00]

So far Jennifer says she knows of five teachers and three former students who were diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Four other teachers, she says, were diagnosed with melanoma. While there are lots of factors that can contribute to cancer, the World Health Organization and others say melanoma is the cancer most closely associated with PCB exposure.

 

I brought all that information with me to school district headquarters in downtown Santa Monica, about 20 miles from the Malibu campus. I asked District Spokeswoman Gail Pinsker about it.

Gail Pinsker:

It's very concerning to us.

Steph O’Neill:

She says the County Health Department told them PCBs are not to blame and that there's no evidence of a thyroid cancer cluster in the Malibu schools. Pinsker says it could be that what seems like a cancer cluster is merely due to more people getting checked for cancer these days.

Gail Pinsker:
[00:17:00]

That is what the Department of Public Health has told us, that particularly women that are concerned about their health, that they are screening and there are higher detection levels of thyroid disease and thyroid cancer than in the past.

Steph O’Neill:

Doctor Carpenter, the PCB expert, says it's nearly impossible to prove or disprove that a cancer cluster exists because there's so many factors that can contribute to cancer.

David Carpenter:

One can't identify a cancer cluster unless you really know what the background incidence of that disease is in the population and what the population that you're investigating consists of. This certainly looks like a cancer cluster to me.

Steph O’Neill:

Either way, parents and teachers ask why take the chance. Why not just test all of the caulk and get rid of the stuff with high levels of PCBs. The school district argues that's not needed because they've already removed the contaminated caulk discovered in the spot test.

 

[00:18:00]

As for the rest of the tainted caulk that may still be there, Pinsker says there's no need to worry. The district is following EPA guidelines by cleaning surfaces with wet rags and by vacuuming floors. The EPA is also requiring some air and surface testing at Malibu schools.

Gail Pinsker:

As long as those guidelines are met, it is safe for staff and students to be in classrooms.

David Carpenter:

That is just absolutely nonsense.

Steph O’Neill:

Again, PCB researcher Doctor David Carpenter.

David Carpenter:

Cleaning is always a good thing, but it's not going to remove the slow migration of PCBs from the caulk into the air.

Steph O’Neill:

Carpenter says you've got to get rid of all the tainted caulk to make a school safe. EPA insider Hugh Kaufman says there's another problem. He says the guidelines the EPA created for schools are illegal because they contradict federal law. That law requires building owners to remove PCBs that are at or above that 50 parts per million standard we talked about earlier. If they don't, they could get fined tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Hugh Kaufman:
[00:19:00]

This is in the law, this is the regulations. It's been on the books for decades and has been enforced against industry for decades.

Steph O’Neill:

I asked the EPA about it and James Jones gives me a call. He's an assistant administrator with the agency in Washington DC. I was told he only had about 15 minutes to talk, so I cut to the chase.

 

Do EPA's regulations require building materials where people live and work to be below 50 parts per million, yes or no?

James Jones:

Yes.

Steph O’Neill:

Then why don't we have that happening in Malibu schools right now?

James Jones:

I don't believe that there is any evidence that it's not happening in Malibu schools. They have found PCBs above 50 parts per million in a couple of classrooms, and in those classrooms they were required to remove it.

Steph O’Neill:

That's what's been frustrating to Jennifer and the other parents in Malibu, that the EPA is giving the school district here a passing grade when it's only tested and removed contaminated caulk in limited areas of the three school campus. Here's Jennifer again.

[00:20:00]
Jennifer:

 

The way they look at this is that it's only in that exact spot. The guy who came to do caulking only caulked that little window and then took new type of caulking and caulked the next window. It's absurd.

Steph O’Neill:

To prove how absurd, Jennifer, some of the other parents, and teachers decided to conduct their own tests. They went to the campus after school. They used box cutters to take little snippets of caulk from windows right next to those the district sampled. Then they mailed them to an EPA approved lab for testing. Many of those samples had PCB concentrations that were hundreds and thousands of times higher than allowed by law.

 

The parents turned those findings over to the district officials and asked that students be moved into portable classrooms until all the old caulk was replaced. The district didn't do that. Instead it filed a police report that could've landed Jennifer in jail for criminal trespass and vandalism, except the LA county district attorney's office determined Jennifer didn't do anything wrong and it refused to file charges against her.

[00:21:00]
Jennifer:

 

Rather than saying oh my God we have illegal scary levels and our kids and our teachers are being exposed, let's get rid of it, they said let's file charges and try to silence them.

Steph O’Neill:

The EPA meantime continues to back the school district's decision to do no further testing of the caulk. I asked the EPA's James Jones, why?

James Jones:

Our rules don't require anyone to test for whether there are PCBs in any materials.

Steph O’Neill:

Wait, what? The EPA's regulations that they've been enforcing for nearly four decades say that building materials containing PCBs at or more than 50 parts per million must be removed. How do you determine that without testing?

 

I'm a little bit confused here. You're saying that the EPA does not require industry to test building materials to determine if they have PCBs above 50 parts per million.

James Jones:

No. When we established that regulation back in the late seventies we said if you find them above 50 you need to remove them. We did not then come back and say you actually have to be testing.

[00:22:00]
Steph O’Neill:

 

Hugh K aufman of the EPA disagrees. He's blown the whistle on his agency in about a half dozen major cases. From the 2010 Gulf oil spill to the Love Canal contamination of the 1970s. He says of course the law requires testing.

Hugh Kaufman:

If there is no intent to require testing then any standard, whether it's 50 parts per million or anything else, is meaningless.

Steph O’Neill:

What about the air testing and the EPA is requiring Malibu schools to do? Kaufman and other critics say that's a red herring because the law doesn't have a standard for testing PCBs in indoor air, only for PCBs in caulk and other building materials.

Hugh Kaufman:

Yet EPA is requiring testing of air where there are no standards but are claiming that they don't have authority to require testing for something where there is standards, 50 parts per million in building material.

Steph O’Neill:
[00:23:00]

That's the central issue of a lawsuit Jennifer's group has filed. America Unites For Kids is trying to force the school district to remove all the PCB contaminated caulk in Malibu schools. The district says so far it's spent nearly $9 million for things like fighting the lawsuit and for environmental consultants. Parents, teachers, and at least one school board member say the money could've been better spent providing temporary portable classrooms and removing all tainted caulk from the campus.

 

Phys Ed teacher Lisa Lambert says she continues to pay close attention to the remaining portion of thyroid gland her doctor left and so far it's remained healthy.

Lisa:

As of right now I'm cancer free.

Steph O’Neill:

She's back at Malibu High and has no plans to leave.

Lisa:
[00:24:00]

If I leave it just leaves the problem for someone else. We love our job, we love our community, we love that our kids can go to school near us. We want our school to be taken care of so we can get back to teaching.

Steph O’Neill:

As for Jennifer and family, in the weeks after I first met her, they got some unsettling news. She tells me that this spring their son Cooper went in for a check up. The doctor noticed a tiny speck just below his ear.

Jennifer:

He took it off and we find out weeks later that it's pre-melanoma. When I looked at the pathology report, it had a bunch of medical words and I didn't know what they meant. We started Googling it and went to doctors and found out. It was disbelief. How does my 15 year old kid who doesn't hang out in the sun, isn't a beach kid, how does that happen?

Steph O’Neill:

It could be just a coincidence, but Jennifer says because research shows such a strong link between PCBs and melanoma, she can't help but wonder whether the window caulk in Cooper's classrooms is to blame.

Al Letson:

That was reporter Stephanie O'Neill of Southern California Public Radio. The lawsuit Stephanie talked about is making its way through federal court. The parents group and public employees of environmental responsibility are suing the school district claiming it's in violation of the toxic substances control act. A verdict is expected later in the summer.

 

A recent Harvard study says up to one third of the nation's schools built between 1950 and 1980 may contain PCBs. Where do these chemicals come from and who ultimately is at fault? We'll have that story when we come back on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Cole Goins:

Hey folks. It's Cole Goins here from Reveal. Every Monday we send out an email newsletter with behind the scenes perspectives from our stories and exclusive insights from our newsroom. In this week's newsletter, we're rounding up some links and resources that you should know about PCBs, the chemicals that you're hearing about on the show. We're featuring links to reporting from our partners and key information about how to test for PCBs.

 

To subscribe to the Weekly Reveal, just head over to revealnews.org/newsletter and get these stories straight to your inbox. Again that's revealnews.org/newsletter.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we've been looking at how schools around the country may be infected with toxic chemicals called PCBs. They're turning up mainly in window caulk in schools built before PCBs were banned in 1979. Parents worry the chemical could make their kids sick since it's been linked to cancer.

 

Now we're going to trace how PCBs first started finding their way into the environment. To do this, we're going to a small town in Alabama called Anniston. In 1929 a small factory there was owned by the Swann Chemical Company and they began making PCBs. In 1935 Swann was bought out by another chemical company called Monsanto. Today we know it as a global agricultural giant. Besides producing herbicides like RoundUp, it's in the forefront of biotechnology. Half a century ago, PCBs were Monsanto's golden ticket. The company was the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the United States.

 

For a look at the damage PCBs have caused, we sent reporter David DesRoche of our partner WNPR in Connecticut, to the place whre it all began.

David DesRoche:
[00:25:00]

On the outskirts of Anniston white steam hisses its way into the sky. Rising out of a smoke stacks of the former Monsanto-

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05]

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:52:13] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

David DesRoche:

To the sky, rising out of smoke stacks of the former Monsanto chemical facility. Other chemicals are made there now, but for some 40 years, the factory produced nearly one and a half billion pounds of PCBs. Most of the chemical was sold to companies that made electrical equipment and building materials. As for the waste, tons of it, Monsanto dumped it into local waterways, or buried it in landfills. This was before there were laws regulating that kind of thing. Snow Creek winds through the West Anniston neighborhood, and it's connected to the chemical plant by a ditch. Curtis Ray is 67. He's lived in West Anniston all his life. Years ago, he and other kids from the neighborhood would swim in the creek, completely unaware of what was around them.

Curtis Ray:

I know back in the day, we used to dam the waters up and swim in it. We were teenagers, we had no ... We used to swim in it, muddy water, me and my cousins, and friends. They poisoned us and we didn't even know it.

David DesRoche:

Local churches even baptized people there, but now Snow Creek is just a cement-lined ditch. No fish, no rocks, or algae, not even dirt. Curtis drives me around the mostly African American neighborhood that's flanked by the chemical plant. Do you remember what this used to be?

Curtis Ray:

Yeah, that used to be a motel. There used to be a motel there.

David DesRoche:

What about that one there, do you know?

Curtis Ray:

There, there was a washing place, where you washed your [clothes 00:29:47] there.

David DesRoche:

Weathered boards dangle over windows. They look like a slight breeze would rip them right off.

Curtis Ray:

See all the empty houses here? There are a lot of empty houses out here now. A lot of people had died, and they left their houses, and all that stuff.

David DesRoche:

Curtis says people in West Anniston die young, die of all sorts of strange diseases, but Alabama doesn't track most illnesses, so it's hard to verify this. He takes me to see a friend, Sylvia Curry. Her house sits at the bottom of a hill with several boarded-up homes across the street, overgrown with weeds.

Sylvia  Curry:

Well, this used to be a beautiful place. Flowers, I can't even plant flowers. They don't grow. Gardens won't grow in, no, won't nothing.

David DesRoche:

Like Curtis, Sylvia tells me about rampant illnesses, and people dying all around her.

Sylvia  Curry:

My husband, he died with a rare cancer. I had cancer twice. Now I have a thyroid problem. I have a heart problem. I mean, there's sickness, and there's sickness.

David DesRoche:

The EPA has cleaned up hundreds of Anniston properties over the last 15 years. They basically removed the top 12 inches of dirt, which has the highest PCB concentrations, but that never happened at Sylvia's house.

Sylvia  Curry:

I've been living in this mess all of my life, and I'm 67 years old. All my life, I've been living here. I lived around the corner, I was born and raised around the corner there. I've been living in this, so I guess we ... They're probably waiting on us, for all of us to die out, because everybody has gone, just [dried out 00:31:42] in here.

David DesRoche:

Even though millions have been spent cleaning up the soil, EPA tests show that PCB levels in the outdoor air haven't changed at all in a decade. It's Monsanto's lasting Legacy in Anniston. It's a legacy that goes back years, and eventually led nearly every single Anniston resident to sue Monsanto and its spinoff company, Solutia, for poisoning the city. During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs presented internal Monsanto documents showing that the company had reason to believe PCBs were highly toxic as early as 1937, and kept making them for decades. When the verdict came out in 2003, media from around the world covered the lawsuits.

Female:

Smiles of relief in an Alabama courthouse after a jury found Monsanto and its spinoff company Solutia polluted the town of Anniston with toxic chemicals called PCBs.

David DesRoche:

The jury found the company is guilty of six charges. Ellen Spears is a professor at the University of Alabama who wrote a book on Anniston's PCB battle.

Ellen Spears:

The jury found the Monsanto Chemical Company and its corporate partners responsible for suppression of the truth, for negligence, for wantonness, for outrage. Alabama Law defines outrage as conduct beyond all possible bounds of decency, atrocious, and utterly intolerable in civilized society, and that's what the judge ruled in one of these cases.

David DesRoche:

Monsanto and Solutia settled the suit for 600 million dollars, but the companies never admitted fault. After the trial, Solutia's then CEO, John Hunter, talked to CBS News.

John Hunter:

I regret that the community, and Solutia, and everybody else is embroiled in this.

David DesRoche:

... but he continued:

John Hunter:

We do not believe that there is any evidence that links PCBs to those serious long-term health effects.

David DesRoche:

As big as the settlement was, it didn't really help the 21,000 residents. Most got less than $7,000 apiece. A handful of lawyers collected $249 million. Curtis Ray was one of the plaintiffs.

Curtis Ray:

The lawyers didn't even pay for the blood tests. We had to pay for our own blood tests.

David DesRoche:

Sylvia Curry got about $12,000, but most of that money was spent on hospital bills, once her husband got sick.

Sylvia  Curry:

It's bad, and it's depressing, too, to live like this. Knowing that there is money that was for us, and we can't do no better, so ... Maybe one day, I hope to live to see it, I can move, get me another house, get rid of this one, and move.

David DesRoche:

For children who haven't been paid yet, because they're under 19, the average payout is going to be less than $2,500, and now, one of the most significant aspects of this settlement, a health clinic, is about to shut down. When the federal government did a huge 4-year health study in Anniston, they couldn't find a direct link to disease, but they did find a correlation between PCB exposure and high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, weakened immune systems, and some cancers. Court records show that about 7,000 people are registered for services at the West Anniston Medical Clinic, but soon, the clinic will close its doors for good. The funding has run out. I meet with the medical clinic's advisory group for lunch at a crowded restaurant downtown. Curtis Ray is there, and so was community activist Shirley Baker. Are you concerned about what will happen once the clinic shuts down?

Shirley Baker:

Yes, of course, because there are so many of our claimants that really may or may not qualify for other resources and services that ... In the community; so that is a major concern of ours that there were going to be several, a lot of our people, they're going to be left without anything now, so that's a major concern. I'm going to go put it on record that Solutia and Eastman need to continue funding our clinic.

Male:

Oh, great. Would they [run out of 00:36:17] this?

Shirley Baker:

At least for another 40 years, because that's how long they contaminated us.

David DesRoche:

The company she's talking about, Eastman, bought out Solutia after it declared bankruptcy. I asked the company if they continued to fund the clinic, but didn't get an answer. Both Sylvia Curry and Curtis Ray have illnesses consistent with chronic PCB exposure, but no definite connections have been made.

Curtis Ray:

We're going to keep picking away, and hoping that relief will come.

Sylvia  Curry:

Yeah.

Curtis Ray:

We got to keep our hope and faith from [bleeding 00:36:48].

Sylvia  Curry:

I would just like to see justice. I mean, I would. Yeah, I would like to have the money too, yeah, but I would like to see the justice done. Because they know they have done us wrong.

Al Letson:

David DesRoche of WNPR in Connecticut is with me now, and David, the situation seems pretty grim in Anniston, especially since they already won a lawsuit worth $600 million. Sylvia and Curtis say they want justice, but what would that mean for them?

David DesRoche:

They really want to see Monsanto held accountable for the PCB contamination in Anniston. You know, they did get the settlement, but they really see the company continuing to be in existence. I mean, the company's different than it was in the past, but they see the company still kind of out there, and they don't see that there has been any justice, they don't see there's been any kind of criminal penalties levied on the company, so that's really what they want to see. They want to see something actually happen to the company itself.

Al Letson:

You've been following this story for more than a year, did you ever manage to meet with Monsanto or Solutia?

David DesRoche:

No. I went back and forth with them, with a Monsanto spokesperson about arranging an interview for the story, but she just repeatedly declined. She did, however, respond to some emails, she sent me some information about Monsanto's history with PCBs, and their talking points just haven't really changed over the years. They basically say PCBs were once useful, and that Monsanto is just not liable for these costs. They often say that they're not the same company that manufactured PCBs, they say that that company doesn't exist anymore, and that's the company that was spun off as Solutia, but they've really just been mired in lawsuits around the country. Cities have sued, individuals, schools. From the schools that have sued, they are claiming, basically, that Monsanto should pay for the cleanup, but only one school district, which is in New York, has actually managed to settle with the company, so more often than not, Monsanto actually emerges victorious.

Al Letson:

The EPA banned PCBs in the late 1970s, and they warned the public about the dangers that were presented by the chemicals, but there's a lot of criticism today about the guidelines that they have for dealing with PCBs, so how does the EPA figure into the story? I mean, what did they have to say to you?

David DesRoche:

Well, remember earlier, when we talked about how the EPA just doesn't really require you to look for PCBs, even though they're actually illegal? Well, I really wanted to find out why that's the case, so I went to Boston to talk to some EPA officials who handle the New England region. One of the people I spoke with is Kim Tisa. She basically coordinates PCB cleanups in schools, and I asked her to explain why the EPA allows PCB caulk to remain in schools, and as we talked, you can hear her becoming increasingly frustrated with my line of questioning.

Kim Tisa:

We monitor those conditions with indoor air samples, with dust and wipe samples. In the event that we determine that those numbers are exceeded, then we assess what else can we do to get those numbers down, because that's the worst case, the direct inhalation and dermal contact. If we can get those down, if we can get that down, then we reduce our risks. That's what we have to do.

David DesRoche:

Isn't the best way to do that just removing the caulk?

Kim Tisa:

You cannot ... If you've got a 500,000 square foot building, exactly how quickly do you think that can be achieved? Cost has to be considered. A school does not have $6 million to go out and do a project. Let's be common sensed here, they do not have it. They barely can buy books.

Al Letson:

Do you think she has a point? I mean, some estimates say that up to 60,000 schools could be contaminated with PCBs. I mean, wouldn't remediation be a monumental cost?

David DesRoche:

Well, PCB remediation is expensive, I mean, it could cost thousands, and in some cases, millions of dollars to clean out a school, but you have to remember that experts say it has to be done. I mean, the financial cost is one thing, but the cost to children's health, I mean, that's a whole other thing altogether.

Al Letson:

Is the cost factor to schools the only reason the EPA doesn't require them to test and get rid of PCBs?

David DesRoche:

Well, I asked Hugh Kaufman, who's also with the EPA, and he put it pretty bluntly. He said it's because of Monsanto's liability. He says the EPA doesn't want school districts getting together and suing Monsanto in a class action lawsuit; so in addition to Kaufman, I also talked to 2 other former EPA officials. They each say that EPA has a history of making decisions that benefit the industry. There's a history of people moving back and forth between the EPA and various industries, and when the PCB problem first surfaced, the person who managed the whole school PCB problem for the EPA was a former consultant for a major chemical lobbying group, and the number 2 person at the EPA at the time was a former executive with Monsanto, who later went on to DuPont. They both say that they abided by EPA's ethics and didn't deal with any of the companies they used to work for, but you know, the fact that the agency continues to relax its guidance, while at the same time, emerging science is showing that PCBs are actually more dangerous than we thought, it's a cause for concern for many.

Al Letson:

How does the EPA respond to the charge that they're giving Monsanto a break?

David DesRoche:

I talked with the EPA's New England chief, Curt Spalding, and he basically says that EPA's decisions have nothing to do with Monsanto, but he also says that the EPA doesn't have the authority to take on the company. Here's how he put it.

Curt Spalding:

In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to send Monsanto a bill, and so would every school superintendent in America. You know and I know that's not easily done at this point. You know and I know there are legal actions that people are trying under civil law to make that happen, and you know and I know Congress could act to make that happen. It doesn't look like Congress is going to make it happen right now. We can only do what our authorities give us to do.

David DesRoche:

The way it stands now is that the EPA is going to be updating its regulations on toxic substances in the coming years, but the agency actually has no plans to change how it manages PCBs.

Al Letson:

David, as a parent, I got to tell you, this is the type of story that worries me. Is there anything that parents can do to make sure their kid's school isn't contaminated with PCBs?

David DesRoche:

Well, they can request that their school test, and if the test actually shows high levels, they could request that the PCBs be removed. Some states actually will reimburse schools for PCB remediation, but only under certain circumstances, and if certain conditions are met. The EPA actually does have recommendations for schools on its website, but as we talked about earlier in the show, some experts say these recommendations just don't go far enough.

Al Letson:

That is David DesRoche of WNPR in Connecticut. They partnered with us on today's show. Thank you, David.

David DesRoche:

Thanks, Al.

Al Letson:

In David's story, we heard from people living next to a factory making toxic chemicals, but what about people working inside a factory that uses dangerous chemicals in its production? When we come back, we hear from one woman who made electronics we depend on ...

Yvette Flores:

When you go into a grocery store and you hear that beep, that's what I made.

Al Letson:

... but she had no idea that making those devices could put her at risk. That's next on Reveal.

Bernice Yeung:

This is Bernice Yeung. I'm a reporter with Reveal. Last year, I was part of a group that reported on a story about how female janitors on the night shift are vulnerable to sexual assault on the job. A lot has happened since the story first ran. Janitors in California are taking part in a grassroots effort to push for more protections against workplace sexual assault and harassment, and a state lawmaker has introduced a bill in response to our investigation. It aims to make it safer for janitors to do their jobs, and it's currently moving fast through the state legislature. You can learn more about these efforts, and check out our original stories on our website, revealnews.org/nightshift. That's revealnews.org/nightshift.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. There are thousands of potentially harmful chemicals out there, and the people on the front lines with the highest risks of exposure are usually workers. Our next story takes us into the heart of Silicon Valley, and the electronic factories that churn out all the tiny magic we use in our everyday lives. Computers, cell phones, tablets, it turns out there's a big cost for that tiny magic, one that took former electronics worker, Yvette Flores, decades to piece together. Reveal's Laura Starecheski has our story.

Laura:

Yvette Flores was 18 when she got her first job, back in 1975. She worked in a factory in Mountain View, California, for a company called Spectra-Physics. She made barcode scanners for supermarket checkout lines.

Yvette Flores:

You know, when you go into the grocery store and you hear that beep, that's what I made.

Laura:

At that time, those scanners were a very new thing, Yvette hadn't even seen one in a store herself, and when she got to work, she would go into a tiny room with almost no ventilation, she'd put on a white smock and a paper mask, and then she's mix these liquid chemicals in a beaker with a gritty powder.

Yvette Flores:

It was very powdery, and it looked green. I would call it "Green Junk."

Laura:

She'd heat that liquid with a blowtorch and use the mixture to fuse two pieces of glass together. That was her job. The fumes were strong.

Yvette Flores:

It got so hot in there, I would have to go into the other room, and that wasn't any better, but it was more circulation there to breathe.

Laura:

Years went by as Yvette worked in that little room. She got married. In 1979, she had her son, Mark.

Yvette Flores:

When Mark was born, he just had medical problems.

Laura:

For one thing, his head was covered in bright red marks called hematomas.

Yvette Flores:

It was like blood blisters on his head, and his eyes were crossed, and his hips were dislocated.

Laura:

No one explained anything to Yvette about the cause of Mark's problems, and she didn't ask.

Yvette Flores:

It didn't dawn on me, you know; I just went, "That's my son." You know, "When can I take him home?"

Laura:

About two-thirds of the workers in those early electronics factories were young women like Yvette, and if they got hurt on the job, occupational medicine specialists Dr. Joe LaDou was the guy some of them saw. LaDou didn't know a lot about what these new companies were making, or how they were making it, but he soon learned that many workers used hydrofluoric acid to etch lines into the computer chips.

Joe LaDou:

I saw hundreds and hundreds of hydrofluoric acid splashes on people.

Laura:

When this acid gets on your skin, it can go straight through, down to the bone. Some of the burns were so bad, workers were losing parts of their bodies.

Joe LaDou:

Fingers, and toes, noses, it was just horrific.

Laura:

Patients would stumble into his clinic barely awake.

Joe LaDou:

They were in first-stage anesthesia.

Laura:

From inhaling the solvents they used on the job. LaDou would ask his patients, "What did you breathe in?" Very few could tell him, so he tried asking the companies.

Joe LaDou:

I got nowhere doing that for years.

Laura:

... so LaDou got creative. He developed sources inside the companies and state agencies. People he could get information from.

Joe LaDou:

Always sworn to secrecy, always dealing with, "You don't ever want to let anyone know that I gave this to you."

Laura:

LaDou got his hands on enough data to find that workers in the semiconductor factories where chips were made had occupational illnesses at 4 times the rate of other industries, and it wasn't just workers feeling the effects, but their kids, too.

Joe LaDou:

Miscarriages, congenital malformations, or birth defects, in the children.

Laura:

Sending ripple effects decades into the future, into the lives of those families today.

Yvette Flores:

Happy birthday to you. (singing)

Mark Flores:

(singing)

Laura:

That's Yvette Flores with her son Mark at their home in San Jose.

Yvette Flores:

That was good. You did really good, you know?

Laura:

Yvette's the woman who worked in the barcode scanner factory, heating up that green powder with a blowtorch.

Yvette Flores:

You're tired?

Mark Flores:

Yeah.

Yvette Flores:

Okay. You want to get your pajamas on?

Mark Flores:

Yeah.

Yvette Flores:

All right. Okay, you put your pajama on and [crosstalk 00:49:11] on and hang them up.

Mark Flores:

Mark's 36, but his brain works a lot like the brain of a two or three-year-old.

Yvette Flores:

You got to hang your shirt up.

Mark Flores:

Hang the shirt up.

Yvette Flores:

Can you do that?

Mark Flores:

I need help.

Yvette Flores:

You need help?

Mark Flores:

Yeah.

Yvette Flores:

I love your ...

Laura:

Yvette's been taking care of Mark since he was born. She never connected his problems to her job at Spectra-Physics, until one day, about seven years ago, when she was driving in her car, she turned on the radio and heard this:

Male:

Birth defects have been linked to toxic chemicals and solvents used in semiconductor and computer chip clean rooms. If your child was born with skeletal, organ, or limb deformities ...

Laura:

Yvette called the number in the ad. She started working with the lawyer, who eventually figured out that that green powder she had been working with was ground leaded glass. It turned out that in that tiny room, Yvette had been breathing lead fumes for five years. The company had never warned her.

Yvette Flores:

They had to see me pregnant. They knew, and I wish they would have just pulled me out of there and just said, "You can't work there no more." If I would have known, you know what? I would have ran so fast ... There's no excuse.

Laura:

Yvette won a settlement from Spectra-Physics in 2013. The company didn't return my calls, but in a court filing, they maintained that it hadn't been proven that Mark's condition was caused by chemical exposure in their factory.

Al Letson:

That piece was produced by Reveal's Laura Starecheski. We want to thank WNPR for partnering with us on today's show, especially reporter David DesRoche John Dankosky, Diane Orson, and Charlie Smart. Thanks also to Stephanie O'Neill and Paul Glickman of Southern California Public Radio for their work on the Malibu story. Deb George was our senior editor this week with production help from Ike Sriskandarajah and Laura Starecheski. Our staff includes Stan Alcorn, Fernanda Camarena, Julia B. Chan, and Rachel de Leon, Mwende Hahesy, Katharine Mieszkowski, Michael Montgomery, David Richard, Neena Satija, Michael Schiller, and Amy Walters.

 

 

 

 

[00:29:00]

Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire "C note" Mullen. Our head of studios, Christa Scharfenberg, and Amy Pyle is our editor-in-chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado-Lightning. Support for Reveal's provided by the Reva , David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. , Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. , James L. Knight foundation, and the Ethics , Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal's a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:52:13]