In 1929, Swann Corporation, which later became a part of Monsanto, began manufacturing polychlorinated biphenals (PCBs) for commercial use. PCBs are oily liquids that conduct heat but not electricity. As such they can be used as an insulating fluid in electrical appliances and were widely applied in everything from hydraulic equipment to degreasing agents for nuclear submarines.

Monsanto has either produced or granted production licences for all but a small fraction of the worlds PCBs, and is responsible for the release of 1.2 million tonnes of the chemicals worldwide.

In 1968, 1,300 residents of Kyush, Japan, fell ill after eating PCB contaminated rice. Many of the affected women later gave birth to children with severe deffects.

In 1969, the New Scientist published a report revealing the capacity of PCBs to "bioaccumulate along the food chain."1 The chemicals, which take many years to biodegrade, pass easily through the lipid portions of cell membranes and are readily absorbed into mammalian fat tissue. Animals at the top of the food chain, like whales, polar bears, dolphins and humans, can store PCBs at highly concentrated levels.

In 1995, it was revealed2 that women who had eaten fish from the contaminated waters of the Great Lakes, Canada, gave birth to children with an unusually high susceptibility to bacterial infection. PCBs were also shown to damage nerves in the brains of developing mammalian foetuses, leading to behavioural and learning defects.

Cancers, particularly malignant melanomas3 have also been clearly linked to PCB poisoning. In Ontario Canada, State compensation is provided for the toxins malignant effects. In addition PCB pollution has been seen to result in immune deficiencies, hypertension and strokes.

In 1998, the journal Environmental Pollution published an article revealing the extent of contamination borne in particular by marine mammals.4 Dolphins, whales and porpoises all contained levels of PCBs which far exceeded that of their terrestrial counterparts. Mediterranean blue white dolphins, for example, were found to carry 833 parts per million in their blubber - nearly 17 times the level requiring goods to be labelled and handled as toxic waste.

Marine mammals were found to have a genetically predetermined sensitivity to PCB induced reproductive impairment5,6 a sensitivity that only one in ten humans of European origin share.4 The chemicals, which mimic mammalian hormones, thus pose a real threat of extinction to these animals.

Revelations have shown that PCBs have actually been condensing at the Earths poles. The North Pole, because of the industrial activity in the Northern hemisphere, has been most badly affected. In 1998, ringed seals from Arctic Norway were found to have five times more PCBs than seals from the Canadian Arctic.7 For the last five years, the Norweigan Polar Institute has been finding polar bears with both male and female sexual organs.8 Researchers fear that up to 4% of the bears may be affected. The Norweigan Special Adviser on polar affairs has pointed out the findings implications for other life forms , including humans: "The polar bear, like us, is at the top of the food chain. We are very concerned."

Native Arctic populations have little choice but to eat the food their environment provides. But the accompanying toxic overdose is causing inevitable disease. In Greenland, the children, partly at least, as a result, are being administered two to three times as many prescriptive drugs as those in Sweden, Norway and the U.S. There are also many documented cases in that country of an increase in reproductive disorders.9,10,11,12,13,14

Research suggests that 20 per cent of the 1.2 million tonnes of PCBs produced now pollute the worlds oceans.15 There is an estimated 180,000 of the worlds remaining PCB stock in the Third World. Monsanto are the worlds prime PCB producer and profiteer.

Data taken from 'The Ecologist' Vol. 28 No. 5 Sept/Oct 1998 with the consent of Joseph E. Cummins. Professor of Genetics, University of Western Ontario, Canada. EMail jcummins@julian.uwo.ca

  1. Jenson, S., "Report on a new chemical hazard," New Scientist 32, 612.
  2. Tryphonas, H., "Immunotoxicity of PCBs in relation to the Great Lakes." Environmental Health Perspectives, 103, Suppl.9, pp. 35-46, 1995.
  3. Loomis, D., Browning, S., Schenk, A., Gregory, E.,and Savitz, D., "Cancer mortality among electric utility workers exposed to polychlorinated biphenals," Occupational Environmental Medicine, 54, pp. 720-8, 1997.
  4. Tanabe, S., "PCB problems in the future," Environmental Pollution, 50, pp. 5-28, 1998.
  5. Reijnders, P.,"Reproductive failure in common seals feeding on fish from polluted coastal waters," Nature 324,pp 456-7, 1986.
  6. Subramanian, A., Tanabe, S., Tasukaura, R., Sairo, N. and Miyanznki, N., "Reduction in testosterone levels by PCBs and DDE in Dallas porpoises," Marine Pollution Bulletin, 18pp. 643-646, 1987: and Subramanian, A., Tanabe, S., and Tarsukaaura, R., "Use of Organochlorides as chemical tracers in determining reproductive parameters in Dallas porpoises," Marine Environment, 1998
  7. Wolkers, J., Burkow, I., Lydersen, C., Dahle, S., Monshouwer,M. and Witkamp, R. "Congener specific PCB and pnd polchlorinated camphene in Svalbard ringed seals," Sci Total Environ 216,pp. 1-11, 1998.
  8. Nutall, N., "Pollutants blamed for dual sex polar bears," The Times, June 1, 1998.
  9. Dewailly, E., Ryan, J., Lalibert,C., Bruneau,S., Weber, J., Gingras, S. and Carrier, G., "Exposure of remote marine maritime populations to coplanar PCBs," Environmental Health Perspectives 102 Suppl. 1, pp.205-9, 1994.
  10. Ayotte, P., Dewaillly, E., Bruneau, S., Careau, H, and Vezina, A., "Arctic air pollution and human health," Sci Total Environ pp.160-161, pp. 529-37, 1995.
  11. Mulvad, G., Pedersen, H., Hansen, J., Dewailly, E., Jul,E., Prdersen, M., Deguchi, Y., Newman, W., Malcom, G., Tracy, R. Middasugh, J. and Bjerregaard, P., "The Inuit diet," Arctic Med Res.55, Suppl. 1, pp. 20-4, 1996.
  12. Ayotte,P., Carrier, G. and Dewailly, E., "Health risk assessment for Inuit newborn," Chemosphere 32, pp. 531-42, 1996.
  13. Ayotte, P., Dewailly, E., Ryan, J., Bruneau, S., and Lebel, G., "PCBs and dioxin likke compounds in plasma of adult Inuit living in Nunavik," Chemosphere 34, pp. 1459-68, 1997.
  14. Dewailly, E., Ayotte, P., Blanchet, C., Grodin, J., Bruneau, S., Holub, B., and Carrier, G. "Weighing contaminant risks and nutrient benefits of country food in Nunavik," Arctic Med. Res. 55, Suppl. 1. pp. 13-19, 1996.
  15. Cummins, J.E., "Extinction: The PCB threat to marine animals," The Ecologist, Vol. 18 No 6, 1998 See also the NAFTA CEE papers: "Status of PCB Management in North America, 40pp., 1996. "PCB Regional Action Plan" 33pp., 1996.

From an article in The Ecologist
Sept/Oct 1998 Vol 28 No 5
by Hugh Warwick

edited by Rowena Tollitt
dated:- 17 September, 2002