Home News and Features Problems in Tomorrowland: The Past, Present and Future of PCBs

Problems in Tomorrowland: The Past, Present and Future of PCBs

Monsanto’s World of Chemistry postcard. Image courtesy of the author.
In January, Montpelier Roxbury School Superintendent Libby Bonesteel sent a letter to every family in the school community to let caregivers know when their child’s school would be tested for PCB contamination. The air quality in Union Elementary School and the Main Street Middle School would be evaluated in March, the high school in 2024, and the Roxbury Village School in 2025. According to Andrew LaRosa, director of facilities, results from the 2023 testing will be available around mid-April. 

Bonesteel’s letter asserted that MRPS schools would be in compliance with Vermont’s Act 74. The law was passed in 2021, but the problem with PCBs began almost 100 years ago.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is not the name for a single chemical, but for a category of chemicals created by the Swann Company in the late 1920s. The odorless and tasteless product offered a dizzying assortment of useful features, among them the ability to resist alkalies, acids, pressure, and moisture. Polychlorinated biphenyls were designed to be fire resistant, which was especially important during a time of rapid electrification, and “highly stable.” Once introduced into the environment, they would not go away for a long time.

By the 1930s, the Monsanto Corporation had absorbed Swann and had begun mass producing PCB products under the trade name “Aroclor.” It could be used as a protective and decorative coating for wood, metal, brick, stone, concrete swimming pools, in structural steel, bridges, buildings, roofs, power lines, masonry floors, and walls. Polychlorinated biphenyls could also be used in fireproofing, paints, varnishes, adhesives … even chewing gum.”

But disturbing reports soon began to trickle in. 

At first, it seemed limited to the factory floor, as when workers, accidentally sprayed with a PCB substance, were burned or developed skin problems. Monsanto attributed this to poor or leaky equipment, but soon even customers were reporting issues. In 1956, the U.S. Navy told the company that a submarine crew had to dress like “men from Mars” to avoid injury when working with PCB hydraulic fluid. The PCBs might spread as a result of leaks or improper disposal or storage. Once in the environment, the chemicals could travel long distances and appear in soil (spreading to plants and animals) water, sediment, and the air.

 Documents from the Monsanto archives revealed that the company’s own scientists were worried about painters who might be using the new Monsanto latex paints in confined or unventilated spaces. In addition to being a threat to the endocrine, nervous, and reproductive systems, PCBs appeared to be carcinogenic. 

In 1969 the company formed an ad hoc committee that concluded, “no action … can completely prevent environmental contamination … however, a number of steps must be taken to prolong the manufacture, sale, and use of these Aroclors.” 

Monsanto had an image to maintain as well. In a 1955 ad for the Monsanto’s World of Chemistry pavilion at Disneyland, the company assured the public, “Monsanto chemicals and plastics promise to build a new and easier way of life for you, your children, and for generations to come.”

Monsanto stopped manufacturing PCB products in 1977. In 1979, the use of PCBs was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thousands of schools built with PCB materials, however, were standing tall. Some were tested, but after the discovery of contamination at Burlington High School, Vermont passed Act 74, becoming the first state to mandate that all schools built or renovated before 1980 be tested and that districts with unacceptable PCB levels take action to mitigate the exposure.

The state established the acceptable level at 15 nanograms (one-billionth of a gram) per cubic meter. If a test of a preschool indicated the presence of 30 nanograms or above, that would indicate a need for action. For an elementary school, this would be 60 nanograms. For high school through adult ages, the action level would be 100 nanograms. 

Why are the PCB levels lower for younger children? In that age group, children tend to consume proportionately more food (compared with their body size) than adults, and diet is another source of PCBs. Any contamination picked up in the air would be in addition to contamination from their diet. 

Most of us have been walking around with PCBs in our system for our entire lives. So, why aren’t we all getting sick? It’s a matter of degree. In small amounts, our health may not be affected by PCBs. Perhaps the quality most prized by the original manufacturers of PCBs, its “virtual indestructibility,” also presents the most significant threat. Although there’s been some decrease in PCB levels since the substances were banned, the chemicals are going to be a fact of life for us, for our children, “and generations to come.”