Monsanto produced and sold toxic chemicals known as PCBs for eight years after learning they posed hazards to public health and the environment. This, according to legal analysis of documents contained in a database of more than 20,000 of the company’s historical memos, letters, meeting minutes and internal presentations. The documents became public as part of legal discovery in lawsuits involving the company.
A plaintiff in one Monsanto PCB-cleanup lawsuit proclaimed: “If authentic, these records confirm that Monsanto knew their PCBs were harmful and pervasive in the environment and kept selling them in spite of that fact.” While Monsanto is not challenging the authenticity of the documents, it is arguing that at the time it manufactured and sold PCBs, they were “legal and approved” and that the company voluntarily stopped production and sale of PCBs prior to any federal requirement that it do so. Technically, this is true. But does it absolve them of legal liability for the ensuing costs?
Monsanto mass produced polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs] between 1935 and 1977 for use as coolants and lubricators in a variety of electrical equipment. Studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s established that the man-made chemicals were dangerous to humans and the environment, and by 1979, they had been banned completely.
However, documents from the database showed the company was aware of the dangers of PCBs as early as October 1969. In a section on “damage to the ecological system by contamination from PCBs,” it said: “The evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence in the environment is beyond questioning.” The document went on to acknowledge that “direct lawsuits are possible,” because customers using the products had not been officially notified about their adverse effects nor did any of the company’s packaging carry a warning.
It would appear that at the same time Monsanto was telling the public its PCBs were safe, it was gaming potential legal liability against lost profits and speculating about the impact full disclosure would have on the company’s public image. The abatement plan presented three courses of action. Each option was accompanied by a risk, reward analysis. The company could: “do nothing”, “discontinue manufacture of all PCBs” or “respond responsibly,” admitting environmental contaminations, and taking remedial action. Monsanto chose the “do nothing” option over discontinuing production and responding responsibly. In doing so, it sacrificed public health and environmental safety in favor of maximum profits.
Another memo from September of that same year admitted PCB leakages were occurring in many major waterways around the world and outlined potential cleanup actions. But the company decided to “let government prove its case on a case-by-case basis”. Two months later, an internal Monsanto presentation on PCBs flatly declared: “From the standpoint of reproduction, the PCBs are highly toxic to birds.” The same presentation described its own products as “the most serious offenders” in what it admitted was “a worldwide ecological problem”.
In 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency officially labelled PCBs “highly toxic” and “a significant hazard to human health and the environment,” However, Monsanto continued to produce PCBs until August 1977, downplaying health and environmental risks.
Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the company continues to refute the allegation it ignored the dangers of PCBs long after their lethal effects were known. It appears the question of what Monsanto knew, and when it knew it, will ultimately be decided in a court of law.