Parents, students and staff of sky Valley Education Center, located in Monroe, Washington, are far from the only people who have seen their health suffer from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a toxic chemical compound. However, the recent $275 million verdict in a case against Monsantothe leading producer of PCBs in the US, could set a precedent for what the future could look like for those responsible for PCB pollution.
In a series of lawsuits taking place at the King County Courthouse, more than 200 parents, students and staff have sued Monsanto for serious health problems caused by PCBs. Monsanto-produced PCBs have been found in light fixtures and window caulking throughout the Sky Valley Education Center. Although the Monroe School District assured teachers and parents that the old building was safe, the lamps began to smoke, catch fire and leak a tar-like yellow oily substance. This, combined with the rampant health problems suddenly facing people in the building, made the contamination impossible to ignore.
PCBs are known for its potential to cause lifelong health problems. They are known as chemicals forever due to the time they take to break down both in the environment and in the human body. Although the PCBs were banned in 1979, are still present in previously constructed buildings such as Sky Valley. The plaintiffs argued that Monsanto was legally responsible due to the serious consequences for the health of those exposed.
Aiyanah Kasoto, a Seattle University marketing freshman who attended opening statements in the most recent Sky Valley trial, believes Monsanto does not have a strong defense.
“I think throughout the opening statements, Monsanto was trying to create their whole argument from scratch, and they were just talking about unrelated things. He was thinking to myself, ‘what are they talking about?’ They were basically saying that PCBs cause problems in people, but they are not dangerous enough to [Monsanto] be wrong,” Kasoto said.
Poor ventilation, combined with inaction by the school district, allowed PCBs to build up inside the building and seriously affected the health of those inside, particularly women and young children. Early puberty, rashes, cracked skin, cysts, sinus problems, autoimmune disorders, thyroid disorders, and cancer were just a few of the physical health problems inflicted on Sky Valley parents, students, and staff. Their symptoms varied in intensity and number from person to person. Mental decline was another problem caused by chemical exposure, especially troublesome for adults who noted big differences in their cognitive abilities.
David Carpenter, professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, who has spent his career studying the effects of PCBs on humans, has a particular interest in how PCBs impact the human brain.
“PCBs lower IQ, reduce the ability to learn and remember, and increase the risk of abnormal neural behavioral characteristics, shorter attention span, things like that. The remarkable thing is that almost every disease that you can see is influenced by exposure to PCBs,” said Carpenter.
while washing. state law requires schools to be tested for environmental hazards, they are not required to take steps to mitigate those dangers, nor are they required to inform parents, students, or staff. When PCB levels were tested at Sky Valley, the tests were done post-remediation, with windows open and fans running, providing inaccurate measurements of the original exposure levels. Furthermore, as Carpenter points out, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alone cannot always hold companies accountable.
“The problem is that the EPA is always far behind. There are some good people there, but they don’t pay attention to the latest research. The EPA has a standard for PCBs in school air, meaning that between 200 and 600 nanograms per cubic meter is safe for children in a school. That’s ridiculous. That is much larger than the evidence of serious health effects shows,” Carpenter said.
Monsanto has emphasized the Monroe School District’s inaction in its defense, but Monsanto is legally responsible for the health effects, even if they were not aware of them.
“It is so easy for companies to hide behind other parts of society like school systems, trying to blame people for what they’re going through,” Eliza Blythe, freshman majoring in environmental studies at Seattle University, he said.
Another Sky Valley trial is scheduled to take place at the King County Courthouse in January. The results of the series of trials in the Northwest will reverberate throughout the rest of the US and will set important precedents in US law.