Choccolocco Creek in Anniston Alabama is known for its easy whitewater rafting, one of the world’s first hydroelectric dams, and a local resident who donned a cow skull and scared the hell out of passersby on nearby roads. It’s less known for being a toxic waterway that turned fish into mutants.
In 1993, a local fisherman caught a severely deformed largemouth bass from Choccolocco Creek, and the truth finally burst into view: For more than 30 years, Monsanto—the world’s largest biotech corporation—had been slowly and consciously poisoning the people of Anniston, Alabama.
From the ’40s to ’70s, Monsanto knowingly dumped millions of pounds of the now-banned industrial chemical polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the town’s landfill and creek. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and humans, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a frequently fatal form of cancer.
Some employees suspected danger as early as the 1950s, yet company management did nothing in response to their concerns. In 1966, Monsanto managers discovered that fish submerged in the Choccolocco turned belly-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if dunked into boiling water. They told no one.
Three years later, they found fish in another nearby creek with 7,500 times the legal PCB levels. However, they concluded that there was no point in “going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges.” In 1975, yet another company study found that PCBs caused tumors in rats. Managers ordered the report’s conclusion changed from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to be carcinogenic.”
In 2003, Monsanto finally confessed and agreed to pay $700 million to more than 20,000 residents in the first civil suit of its kind. Thousands of pages of Monsanto documents—many marked “CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy”—proved that, for decades, the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew.
“This is a classic case of corporate abuse as well as a violation of public trust,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of the health and environmental group Beyond Pesticides. “Even as the signs piled up of its dangers and adverse effects, the company continued to ignore the warnings.”
While Monsanto employees kept this dirty secret, the residents of Anniston had no idea how prevalent this pollutant chemical was becoming in their daily lives. For years, they drank and swam in toxic ponds, cultivated vegetables from chemically saturated soil, and even ate the tainted soil, a practice known as pica.
For instance, Shannon Jeffries, a former resident of Anniston, only found about the poison water lawsuit after her husband asked why so many people in her family were deformed or had died of cancer.
“It didn’t seem odd for me to know many people with various forms of cancer,” Jeffries said. “I didn’t make the connection about this aunt or this uncle having this weird disease, or this person having this funky eye condition. I was innocent I guess, sheltered, scared to ask. Who knows?”
Jeffries herself was born with a severe form of scoliosis that led to excruciating pain and surgeries throughout her youth and adulthood. While still in utero in the late ’60s, her mother spent the better part of her pregnancy with her belly submerged in the same creek where tons of toxic chemicals were being dumped.
Even though PCBs have now been banned, it’s clear that they have long-term impacts on our health.
“There’s a range of adverse impacts that run the gamut of both chronic and acute health effects,” Feldman adds. “The concern historically has been that it’s an organic pollutant and carcinogen in both animals and humans. The company should have known this was harmful, and I believe they did.”
According to Feldman, Monsanto isn’t alone in this. From his experience, there is almost always collusion between government and corporations where companies hide behind laws of government regulation and scientific debate.
Monsanto, the same company that brought us Agent Orange and DDT, stopped making PCBs in 1977, two years before a nationwide ban took effect. Today, however, they are the leaders in manufacturing genetically modified organisms, claiming that this technology will reduce soil erosion and pesticide use, decrease our dependency on fossil fuels, slow climate change, and other grandiose positive effects on the environment .
But instead, Feldman says, the opposite is happening, and Monsanto continues to do nothing about it.
“All of the promises we have been made with this technology have really failed us,” he adds. “All of their assumptions are wrong.”
Currently, 70 percent of foods grown in the United States contain genetically modified ingredients, but there is no way for consumers to know because businesses are not required to identify them on the label.
Hopefully we don’t have to wait for the day that people start turning belly-up, spurting blood, and shedding skin to get the answers we deserve.