Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) is a dangerous and toxic chemical. It has been used around the world by companies for its longevity, a trait that is also responsible for its stubbornness towards biodegradation. Research emerging about its impacts on killer whales, has set a panic over their fate, but what has and is still being done about PCB can offer a gleam of hope in such a painted misery.
In 1979 the United States federal government banned the chemical, after it was publicly known to be harmful for both human and environmental health. Later in 2001, the Stockholm Convention banned its use worldwide. However, the public was the last to know about the effects, and the companies that used them have made it too late to stop the chemical from making its way across the planet.
In a study posted in Science, researchers theorize that PCB will be responsible for a 50% decrease in Orca populations that are off the coast of industrialized countries. Biomagnification of this toxic chemical leads to damaging accumulation of PCB in whale blubber, causing local extinctions by way of cancer, endocrine issues, and more. Scientists suggest that only the uncontaminated areas of the Antarctic and Arctic will act as a refuge for the species. These two areas are said to experience population growth in the next 100 years.
This powerful document of scientific literature caused a wave of articles by mainstream news outlets. Reading these articles felt like a punch to the gut. Headlines containing the words doom, wipe out, toxic ocean stew, paint a very dark picture, and their perspective on this issue fails to include important developments and inspiring figures that are relentlessly tackling the PCB issue head on. Those that are working towards sustaining a future for marine life, work because they know they can still make an impact.
The problem is that PCB is a persistent chemical that is very difficult to biodegrade. Inquiring minds may ask why companies even used PCB in the first place, and why didn’t anyone study this chemical enough before such wide use?
Investigative reporter Peter Von Stackelberg, and other activists, led a 40-year investigation on this very question, directed towards Monsanto Co. Through transcripts, letters, and lab documents, Peter and colleagues claim that Monsanto Co. knew about the health risks involved with PCB since the 50’s. The government did not do its job of monitoring companies activity either, and thus Monsanto Co. continued to use PCB without restriction, guilt, or any shame that you can imagine would stop such a criminal act.
“As I got deeper and deeper into it, I couldn’t continue to ignore the fact that there was something seriously wrong with the industry and the regulatory system,” says von Stackelberg. “Corporations are people too, right? I’m gonna take Mitt Romney at face value there, and say we need to have a death penalty for corporations.”
Washington State and the City of Spokane are going to use the investigative findings next summer for a court trial that is based off a filed lawsuit against Monsanto made in 2015. The City of Spokane is concerned about the Spokane River being exposed to the substance, as ecological health has been damaged, and people who consume fish from the river may be at risk of ingesting PCB.
“The city’s argument is, ‘Hey now we’re stuck with paying for this cleanup, so Monsanto, you need to come pay for part of this,’” says Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Environmental Law and Land Use Clinic.
This isn’t the first time the government has taken companies to court over PCB. In 2001, the US government commanded General Electric (GE) to clean up New York’s Hudson River of toxic waste that it dumped in the past decades. This would involve dredging the river, which would happen later in 2009, despite pushback from GE about the ecological damage involved in dredging a river. Just over 620 barges filled with sediment contaminated with PCB were delivered to waste treatment facilities.
The result of taking companies to court, can evidently deliver satisfying results. Remarkably in 2016, a humpback whale was spotted swimming in the Hudson River in Manhattan New York. This once neglected and polluted river has become a common site for whales. This story proves that PCB can be removed from certain waterways, and companies will pay for it based upon those that tirelessly work to obtain justice.
In 2019 the Stockholm Convention will get together again, hopefully with new plans for PCB to decide how countries can properly dispose of it. Greenpeace and other NGOs fought for its ban during the 70’s, and without their constant pressure on our government, it may still be produced today in North America.
Mark Simmons, a senior marine scientist, stated that the consequences of PCB has provided a lesson for the planet that future decision makers can learn from. The increase in awareness of PCB, has also led people to consider other human impacts that we also can still change, such as noise pollution. In an article with “The Guardian,” Mark remarked about the U.S. effort at removing PCB and some of the results of these actions in an optimistic way. He wishes that Europe would follow suit in the near future, as sea life return to once polluted areas containing PCB.
“It’s been done mainly to protect human health, but there’s a wonderful side-effect. A lot of wildlife is now slowly coming back including seals, seabirds and bottlenosed dolphins and harbour porpoises. On both the east and west coasts, the great white is also recovering. Only killer whales are still doing badly but if the US carries on the way it has been doing, then I think killer whales will make a recovery as well.”
Did Monsanto know about the effects of PCB for years, and what does the global use of that chemical mean today for Killer Whale populations all over the world?