GE, Bayer, Blamed for Child’s Cancer in a Community Awash in PCB Pollution

Yves here. It is over my pay grade to know the odds of success of these cases against major manufacturers, here GE and Bayer, for their role in producing and selling products that contained PCBs and are now arguably the cause of serious health problems in affected communities. As a general rule, it would seem the plaintiffs have good odds of prevailing when they worked in plants with PCBs present and they failed to implement adequate safety measures, or are in communities near plants where the local level of PCB contamination is high and can be attributed primarily to factory operations.

Keep in mind also that if the plaintiffs get past summary judgment, they may find smoking guns in Bayer and GE files. For instance, with glyphosate, Bayer, which bought Monsanto, pinned its belief that it did not face litigation risk on the fact that numerous scientific studies found that the herbicide was not a carcinogen. But the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed it “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).” The issue is very much debated but the WHO designation gave litigants a big boost. And it did not help that in discovery, Monsanto documents showed that its workers applying glyphosate on test fields wore extensive protective coverings, while Monsanto did not recommend a similar level of shielding for farmers and gardeners using glyphosate.

By Carey Gillam. Originally published at The New Lede

Undated photo of Carter LaCasse. Photo provided by Crystal Czerno.

A Massachusetts mother filed a lawsuit on Tuesday blaming widespread PCB pollution by General Electric (GE), Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG, and several other companies for causing her 9-year-old son to develop leukemia and suffer repeated debilitating medical treatment.

Crystal Czerno alleges, among other things, that GE knowingly contaminated her son Carter’s elementary school and playground with PCB waste while downplaying the harm it could cause. The school is located in the town of Pittsfield, just north of a GE facility that made electrical transformers containing PCBS for more than 40 years. PCB-laden soil from the GE site was spread over the school grounds.

The lawsuit accuses the companies of using the community as a “dumping ground” for “toxic and cancerous” chemicals.

“As a mom I am supposed to protect my babies and I must now live with the fact that I moved them into a home and a school that put them in direct danger,” Czerno said. “My son Carter has paid the price.”

The young boy has undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy, as well as full-body radiation, and multiple stem cell transplants and bone marrow biopsies, according to the lawsuit. Another bone marrow biopsy is scheduled next week, his mother said.

Czerno’s lawyer, Thomas Bosworth, said he has several more claims that will be filed in the coming days from area residents struggling with health problems they believe are linked to PCB pollution.

“This is not just about getting justice for these victims,” said Bosworth. “It is also about the future of the community.”

“A Significant Hazard”

The Massachusetts case is the latest in a string of lawsuits filed around the country that aim to hold the makers and users of PCBs accountable for decades of persistent environmental contamination. The chemicals, formally called polychlorinated biphenyls, have long been linked to an array of human health concerns, including leukemia and other cancers.  In one study of nearly 400 children, researchers found that detection of PCBs in the home was associated with a 2-fold increase in risk for acute lymphocytic leukemia.

PCBs are also known to be harmful to fish and wildlife. They do not easily break down, making eradication difficult.

Monsanto, purchased by Bayer in 2018, manufactured PCBs from the 1930s to the late 1970s for use in coolants and lubricators in electrical equipment. Internal corporate records revealed through litigation show the company continued to sell PCBs for years while knowing they posed health risks and publicly downplaying the risks. The new lawsuit draws on those documents, citing several from the 1950s and 60s that speak of internal corporate concerns about PCB toxicity, potential legal liability, and the “universal presence as residues in the environment.”

The United States banned PCBs in 1979 but PCB pollution remains pervasive. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called them “a significant hazard to human health and the environment.”

Several thousand municipalities have sued over PCB contamination of waterways, and Attorneys Generals of several states have also sued over contamination of schools and other properties. Bayer so far has agreed to pay $650 million to municipal entities for the PCB water pollution.

In addition, Bayer is facing claims from several people who worked at a school in Monroe, Washington. Three teachers won $185 million two years ago in a lawsuit against Monsanto, alleging they suffered brain damage from PCBs in fluorescent lights at the school where they worked. Others associated with the same school have also won verdicts recently.

Bayer claims it has “strong defenses” against such cases, including the fact that it did not make the lighting products that contain the PCBs, and says the schools actually could be responsible because they’ve known for years of the need to address PCB-containing products in their schools.

In a statement, Bayer said it has “great sympathy” for the plaintiff in the lawsuit but denied any responsibility. Monsanto did not manufacture or dispose of PCBs in the greater Pittsfield area and had no responsibility for, or control over, the GE plant, the company said. The company additionally disputed a connection between exposure to PCBs and leukemia.

GE did not respond to a request for comment.

Protesting a “Massive” PCB Dump

Czerno’s lawsuit comes against the backdrop of an ongoing battle over a federal mitigation plan for PCB pollution in the Housatonic River in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where Czerno and her family live.

The EPA has laid out a cleanup plan with GE to relocate up to 1 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from the river. Much of the contaminated waste will go into a landfill in the county, though the EPA maintains the most toxic material would be shipped out of stat

But environmentalists, residents and community leaders have protested the plan, claiming dredging the river and then trucking the waste to a nearby site within the county will do little to protect community residents and could put them at added risk, in part because the designated landfill is near the town’s water reservoir. They want the waste removed from the community entirely.

Research shows that people can be exposed to PCBs not only through water, but also by breathing in contaminated air or exposure to contaminated soil, and ingesting contaminated food.

The opponents to the EPA plan have sued the EPA to block what they call the “massive PCB dump”in Berkshire County. But so far they are losing the fight. Last month a federal appeals court rejected their challenge to the EPA.

A “Life-Altering” Toll  

While her neighbors fight the PCB landfill plan, Czerno said her focus is on protecting her family. They no longer eat the vegetables from the backyard garden, and Czerno said she wonders where she can send her son to school if and when he is well enough to attend.

Caring for Carter in and out of hospitals has forced her to quit work, and taken a “life-altering” toll on her other son as well as her extended family.

Doctors have told her that even if Carter is eventually declared cancer-free, his life expectancy is significantly shortened due to all the treatments he has undergone.

“Every day I look at Carter and I wonder if the cancer is going to take him away from me,” she said. “Sometimes when we are lying in bed at night I record our conversations and dread the day they are all I have left.”

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  1. Northeaster

    A Massachusetts mother filed a lawsuit on Tuesday blaming widespread PCB pollution by General Electric (GE)

    As a side note, GE is the most healvily criminal & civil penalized corp in Massachusetts.

  2. The Rev Kev

    ‘…with glyphosate, Bayer, which bought Monsanto, pinned its belief that it did not face litigation risk on the fact that numerous scientific studies found that the herbicide was not a carcinogen.’

    I don’t suppose that Bayer went into who paid for all those scientific studies clearing that herbicide of being a carcinogen by any chance? If it turned out to be Monsanto I would not be surprised in the least and which would make Bayer look to be run by complete idiots. We know that the tobacco industry paid for scientific papers clearing smoking of causing cancer and the oil industries paying for scientific studies saying that climate change is not real. So you would hope that Bayer would have checked who was bankrolling all those studies based on the knowledge of this sort of thing happening.

    1. Adam1

      They didn’t care as long as “…Bayer look to be run by complete idiots” didn’t happen until after they collected their fat bonuses. But maybe for once someone(s) over played their hand and will have to pay for being the idiot(s).

    2. Xiaolei Mu

      The Bayer-Monsanto story caused something of a public stir in German media a few years back. Besides the obvious glyphosate issue, some articles surmised that Black Rock was pulling the strings behind the deal. I don’t know more details, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some arms twisted or deal sweeteners added to make the Bayer execs agree.

  3. Rip Van Winkle

    The case of PCBs, like PFAS, ‘all roads lead to Rome’ – a few big manufacturers concealing their internal research – for decades! – about the persistence in the environment and health hazards.

    TSCA incineration to ‘six nines’, 99.9999% destruction. Scrubbers to remove the residual Cl. High cost compared to hazardous waste landfills. This option has been available for at least 30 years. Admittedly like the East Palestine waste disposal saga, nobody want this stuff showing up by them. Well almost nobody – Sauget, Illinois is a special case, especially for Monsanto.

    These same culprits GE, Bayer/Monsanto, were involved in dioxins, too, which is an order of magnitude worse than PCBs for human heath risk.

    Nobody in Corporate Suites ever gets indicted let alone sent to prison for environmental crimes, except occasional Father & Son Plating Company on mis-characterizing waste codes or accumulation time paperwork. The corps can come up with evil twins like Solutia and Chemours to off-load the liabilities. When GM and whatever name Chrysler had at the time were bailed out in 2009 by O, their legacy environment liability went to the public in the form of the RACER Trust.

    Roll the tape and let’s see if Jack Welch ever talked about this on his many gushing CNBC interviews. Six-nines, Jack, wherever you are!

  4. Appleseed

    Good luck to the litigants. If Bloomington, Indiana’s experience with PCBs is any indicator, it’ll take decades to wind through courts and the regulatory apparatus. What Gets Buried in a Small Town: The Toxic Legacy of PCBs in Bloomington | The MIT Press Reader
    Three sites in B’ton were added to the National Priorities (aka Superfund) list in the 1980s. Remediation by EPA was not complete until 2021. I don’t know of a single lawsuit about adverse health consequences due to PCB exposure in Bloomington. Crystal Czerno’s legal team at least will have access to the vast field of research about PCBs’ toxic legacy. He they nail the malefactors.

  5. EMC

    I grew up there. This is personal, though I left a long time ago. I expect I had my share of exposure. This isn’t the first instance where GE has knowingly exposed children to PCB contaminated soils going back to the 60s (at least). There are plenty of smoking guns. I’m not surprised they won’t respond for comment.

  6. Lex

    My jaw literally dropped when I read that PCB contaminated soil was spread on a playground. I assume that it was under regulatory limits but regulatory exposure limits are not based on childhood or chronic exposure.

    PCBs, like asbestos, were put in a lot of things we don’t necessarily expect them to be in. 35% of all PCB production went into paints (it’s a plasticizer). You won’t normally see PCB paints in residential or commercial buildings, but on the other hand there’s no requirement to test paints for PCBs before renovation or demolition. They were also used in caulks, and there’s evidence that many old schools are PCB contaminated from caulking. My personal best was a caulk that came in at 700,000 ppm (yes, I know). Of course PCBs migrate so the concrete on either side of the caulk line was contaminated above regulatory limits to almost two feet. And then there’s the old style air compressors that used oil, usually a PCB oil. In industrial facilities I’ve found surface PCBs all over because of the service air connections and use of service air.

    Unfortunately all of the EPA’s regulations were written around dielectric fluids and contaminated soil. The “bulk products” designation was almost a throwaway line in the CFR and never got updated. So we’re all just interpreting it as best as we can, or ignoring it … probably the most common interpretation.

    1. ETO

      GE was offering “clean” fill in the 50’s to anyone who could haul it away. When I first moved to my house in Pittsfield and started preparing ground for a garden. I found industrial equipment waste as I was working the soil. I have a milk crate full of it, plus some odd pieces of building( brick wall chunks) and part of a highly specialized brick used in building firing kilns. A friendly senior citizen neighbor told me about GE offering free fill back in the day. The EPA was holding a public comment session regarding the proposed River cleanup which I attended. I spoke to the representatives regarding the debris I had found on my land, but they kept blowing it off, saying it was explainable. I signed up for testing, but the areas they chose to test were not close to the house where back fill would most likely be found and the testing seem more akin about the ‘68 tank breach into the River testing the water table on the land. The test found very low levels of PCBs essentially nothing. A few years after that the EPA acknowledged that GE PCBs were contained in the free fill, they contracted with a local firm, Allegrone to test soil and arrange for removal if found contaminated. The plan was not publicized widely and it had a short time period before they stopped the enrollment. There were a few houses that were cleaned up around my neighborhood. I recall the highly toxic playground that GE argued down the requirements for clean up, it really bothered me. And the reason why they were allowed to reduce the requirements was because GWB had become president and his EPA left the project to the city to finish. Without EPA backing you can imagine that the local government was trying to get the best it could get.

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