Biocidal: Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs

Biocidal: Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs

by Theodore Michael Dracos

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Whether or not you've heard of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), it's likely that this toxic chemical can be found in your cells. PCBs were invented in 1920 for the electronics industry, fueled the WWII military machine, then were put to domestic uses, and finally came to be present in every corner of the earth. Because PCBs were outlawed in 1976, most people think


Whether or not you've heard of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), it's likely that this toxic chemical can be found in your cells. PCBs were invented in 1920 for the electronics industry, fueled the WWII military machine, then were put to domestic uses, and finally came to be present in every corner of the earth. Because PCBs were outlawed in 1976, most people think they are no longer a threat. However, like many industrial chemicals, PCBs persist in our environment and continue to accumulate in practically every life form on earth, becoming more concentrated in the tissues of those highest on the food chain—like us.

In Biocidal, investigative journalist Ted Dracos explores the science behind how PCBs affect the environment, amphibians, fish, and mammals. He also draws on extensive research to document the connection between PCBs and catastrophic human illness. From the beginning—even as workers in the first manufacturing plants quickly began to suffer skin lesions, boils, liver failure, and death—the industry denied the danger of its chemicals and manipulated science, regulatory agencies, and the government to continue to make and distribute PCBs throughout the next half-century. Dracos provides the latest scientific findings in the heated controversy that surrounds the continued health impacts of PCBs, ranging from cancer to immunosupression, endocrine disruption, fetal brain development, reproductive abnormalities, and even autism.

Yet Biocidal is optimistic, leaving readers with a complete and surprisingly uncomplicated blueprint of what can be done—and is being done—to counter the risks and damages of PCBs and other industrial chemicals.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] driving, fast-paced narrative . . . Dracos’s straightforward reporting delivers one blow after another.”—Publishers Weekly

“Innately villainous and shrouded by deceit, PCBs are the cigarettes of the chemical world. Finally, with Biocidal, their treacherous story is told. And, because all of us on Earth carry molecules of PCBs within our bodies, it is a story that all of us on Earth need to hear. Happily, Ted Dracos makes listening to PCBs a captivating task.”—Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment  
“The first ever complete and up-to-date story of PCBs and their effects on human health and the ecosystem.”—Dr. David Carpenter, Director, Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany
“Dracos tells the well-documented tale from its beginning, filling in the details of how we have all been reduced to playing the role of lab rats in an awful toxicity experiment created by Monsanto, which made more than 99 percent of all of the PCBs ever used in the United States. The story has many players, including not only Monsanto, but also Monsanto’s biggest customers — polluters that include General Electric and Westinghouse – complicit scientists working on behalf of industry, and co-opted officials in government agencies. Although Dracos spins a non-fictional horror story dotted with dozens of bad decisions made over the course of decades, he also manages to end the book with a hopeful message for change.”—Steven Jensen Blog
“This book is a game changer with respect to the world of PCBs.”—Katie Noble, KPCW’s This Green Earth
“Details how the chemical industry manipulated regulatory agencies despite knowledge of the dangers of PCBs. The author synthesizes research on the connection between PCBs and human illness, environmental damage, and damage to species diversity, drawing on scientific studies, news articles, and court documents.”—SciTech Book News
“Dracos’ writing is accessible and intelligent…Such skilled writing and his talents as an investigative reporter allow Dracos a certain panache to telling the story of Monsanto, the EPA and independent researchers uncovering the true danger.”—Dotrad blog

Publishers Weekly
Investigative reporter Dracos (Ungodly) shines a bright light on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the resulting grand science experiment in which all living creatures now participate, whether they know it or not. "So efficient are PCBs at migrating from the environment to the cells of living creatures," Dracos writes, "that there is probably not a human being alive who doesn't have PCBs locked somewhere in his or her tissues." PCBs originated in 1920, and stories of the companies that manufactured and used them in mammoth quantities will satisfy those looking for evidence of corporate depravity, greed, fraud, and downright unethical or even inhumane behavior. With a driving, fast-paced narrative, Dracos traces the history of Monsanto; a corporate physician who hid many health effects that were uncovered in manufacturing and use; and the discovery by a Swedish scientist that PCBs were not only in all the fish he sampled but in the blood of his own family. Dracos goes on to discuss the regulatory changes that began in the 1970s as well as years of stonewalling by GE to avoid cleanup of the Hudson River. Dracos's straightforward reporting delivers one blow after another, but concludes with a seemingly simple, though politically loaded, two-step solution to chemical contamination.
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Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

PCBs, Breast Cancer, and Hidden Agendas
Chemophobia, the unreasonable fear of chemicals, is a common public reaction to scientific or media reports suggesting that exposure to various environmental contaminants may pose a threat to health.  —Dr. Stephen Safe, The New England Journal of Medicine
PCBs have been found everywhere on the planet, in the deepest ocean trenches and the highest mountain ranges. So efficient are PCBs at migrating from the environment to the cells of living creatures that there is probably not a human being alive who doesn’t have PCBs locked somewhere in his or her tissues. We have all been chemically tattooed. We are all participants in the largest involuntary lab test in human history. Consequently, every person reading these words is directly or indirectly part of a heated scientific controversy: are PCBs contributing to the epidemic of breast cancer in the United States and Europe?
In fact, the question had been answered ten years earlier. Perhaps the foremost PCB researcher in the world declared that PCBs were not harming women. He said essentially that PCBs were safe, but their reputation had suffered from an unfortunately sensationalistic media. The announcement of the safety of PCBs came from a scientist at Texas A&M, implausibly named Stephen H. Safe. Dr. Safe was (and arguably still is) the world’s preeminent expert on the subject of the toxicity of PCBs. For thirty years, he had investigated their chemistry as thoroughly as anyone on the planet and his work was cited thousands of times, more than any other scientist, living or dead. If anybody could pronounce PCBs safe to human health, it was Dr. Stephen H. Safe.
In his exoneration of PCBs, Dr. Safe pointed to the largest-scale research project of its time. The results, published by the ultra-prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in the fall of 1997, had failed to find any connection between PCBs and breast cancer in hundreds of women who were chosen as test subjects. In fact, according to some interpretations, the research indicated that women with higher body burdens of PCBs actually had lower rates of breast cancer.
Dr. Safe was given a full editorial page by the New England Journal of Medicine to expand on his views of the unnecessary fears regarding PCBs specifically, as well as other trace industrial chemicals that are found in everyone. Coining a new term, Safe called the public reaction to scientific and media reports about PCBs “chemophobia,” a sort of modern-day hysteria that mostly affected women—or such was his implication.
The editorial got strong positive coverage in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Both hailed the breast cancer study and Dr. Safe’s views as illuminating and authoritative. The New York Times’s science reporter summarized Safe’s editorial and the breast cancer study by writing, “One more environmental scare bit the dust last week as scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that their large and meticulous study found no evidence that exposure to the chemicals DDT and PCB’s [sic] are linked to breast cancer.”
Dr. Safe was quoted as telling the Times reporter that it was time to stop trying to make a connection between breast cancer and synthetic organochlorines like PCBs. “For advocates [of the idea] it’s never ending. But for other people, there may be times when we want to spend our money on other things,” said Safe. He opined that the public just had to move on.
But it wasn’t time to move on. Dr. Safe would be shown to be wrong—perhaps dead wrong—both in his quasi-political pronouncements and his scientific analysis of the safety of PCBs. His controversial scientific judgments would encompass the most profound health concerns of more than twenty-three million females in the United States and hundreds of millions of women worldwide, making a tragically fascinating and ultimately disheartening tale about the realities of gender politics and the influence of money on science.
In contrast to the link between PCBs and testicular cancer, there is no smoking-gun relationship between the PCBs and breast cancer. However—since the turn of the millennium—a persuasive new body of evidence has been compiled, mostly by female scientists, that argues that PCBs present a quite serious breast cancer risk to women in America and worldwide.
The study that Dr. Safe used to absolve PCBs of causing breast cancer was done by lead researcher Dr. David J. Hunter, of the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Hunter, an Australian, was the Vincent L. Gregory Professor in Cancer Prevention, an endowed chair that gave him a prestigious academic platform he could use to advance his views on the causes of breast cancer.
Dr. Hunter’s study was published in the fall of 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine, along with the “chemophobia” editorial by Dr. Safe, which declared that PCBs were irrelevant to the breast cancer epidemic. Hunter’s study of PCBs and DDT was comprehensive—at least as far as numbers were concerned. Using data from the famous Nurses’ Health Study, which had stored thirty-two thousand blood samples from nurses across the country, Dr. Hunter and his colleagues chose 240 women who had developed breast cancer and then found a matching number of nurses who had not. After analyzing the research, the Hunter team found that there was no relationship between breast cancer and the amount of PCBs in the blood of the nurses. The levels of PCBs in both groups were essentially the same.
It all seemed so clear-cut. Another chemophobic myth had been debunked. Or had it? As lead researcher, Dr. Hunter—with Dr. Safe’s editorial endorsement—had apparently based his breast cancer study on the premise that all women are genetically identical when it comes to how their bodies deal with industrial chemicals like PCBs.
There were, of course, obvious benefits to the simplicity of Dr. Hunter’s thinking. It certainly made for an easy study. If all women were basically the same genetically for the purposes of the research, then all you had to do was locate some with breast cancer and compare their blood serum levels of industrial contaminants such as PCBs with the levels in women without breast cancer and voilà! If the levels were about the same in both groups of women, PCBs couldn’t be the cause of breast cancer in women.
In retrospect, lumping all women together as Dr. Hunter did, believing that they all would have the same genetic response to chemical contaminants—ignoring the possibility that racial or ethnic subgroups of women such as African Americans or Ashkenazi Jewish females, for example, might have dissimilar genetically based reactions to toxins (which they indeed do)—would seem implausible behavior for an epidemiologist with Hunter’s reputation, and implausible for Safe to accept. But they apparently did just that.

Meet the Author

Ted Dracos (1945-2011) was a journalist in the areas of science and social policy, and was the author of UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

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