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PMJA Best Health/Medical Feature: "Monsanto and Anniston: Twenty Years Later" Alabama Public Radio

Anniston, Alabama. It was twenty years ago, when the Monsanto chemical company settled a lawsuit for allegedly causing a range of illnesses, including cancer and birth defects among 20,000 local residents.
Pat Duggins
Anniston, Alabama. It was twenty years ago, when the Monsanto chemical company settled a lawsuit for allegedly causing a range of illnesses, including cancer and birth defects among 20,000 local residents.

“David Baker (of Anniston, Alabama) drove us around the community. And he explained that this person, this resident, passed away such and such year and this is one of the...our relatives passed away, passed away he passed away. So, it was so heartbreaking. Very, very sad experience,” said Professor Ryoichi Terada, of Tokyo’s Meiji University.

2023 marked two decades since the Monsanto Chemical Company settled with residents of Anniston, Alabama. 20,000 people in this mostly African American town blamed chemicals called PCBs, produced at a local factory, for medical problems ranging from cancer to birth defects. Twenty years later, Anniston still bears the scars, and this isn’t the only alleged example of industrial chemicals killing Alabama neighborhoods, with the apparent endorsement of government.

Please find Alabama Public Radio’s entry for the PMJA award for Best Health/Medical Feature, titled “Twenty Years Since Monsanto and Anniston.” The APR team spent ten months, with no budget, producing this program.

APR met Professor Ryoichi Terada, and another researcher from Japan, who are studying the long-term impact of PCBs on Anniston, following a similar man-made disaster in their country. Our listeners saw the lingering impact of PCB contamination through the eyes of these visitors.

"Twenty Years since Monsanto and Anniston"

This year is the twentieth anniversary of a legal settlement in the town of Anniston. Two companies agreed to pay over six hundred million dollars to thousands of residents in that community northeast of Birmingham. The issue was over health problems allegedly caused by chemicals called Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs for short. Anniston residents complained of health problems ranging from cancer to neurological effects. They blamed PCBs produced at a local factory for these illnesses.

Pat Duggins

If you want to know what dealing with PCB contamination is like in Anniston, ask David Baker.

“Oh man, the smell you could not stand, though. Oh man, it was something…if you ever smelled a rotten egg, like 20- day old collard greens mixed together...That smell would come up. It was bad. It was a bad smell,” he says.

David Baker grew up on the west side of Anniston. That is where most of the town’s black residents lived. It was also where the PCB contamination was said to be at its worst. And there were more than just bad smells, there was a mysterious yellow substance.

He says, “My mother used to had to wipe the tables there, before she could cook in the morning because back then you didn’t have air conditions as they have now so your widows was up in the summertime so the contamination would land in on the table” Baker is the founder and director of the Anniston organization Community Against Pollution. Over twenty years ago, he led an effort to get Monsanto to compensate residents for illnesses blamed on PCB contamination.

The story is ongoing and often begins by getting in his truck...

“We had everything over here, everything. This was the projects, houses was there” he says, “...This was a meat market, right there in front of us. No longer is it a meat market. It’s just a dilapidated building now.”

...and APR isn’t the only ones to take that drive and to hear those stories...

“My name is Ryoichi Terada, Meiji University, Tokyo.”

Professor Ryoichi Terada
Joe Moody
Professor Ryoichi Terada

Terada visited Anniston in March. He is a professor of environmental sociology and has spent his career focused on issues relating to environmental justice.

“He drove us around the community and he explained this is one of our relatives passed away, passed away, passed away…was so heartbreaking.”

Professor Terada made the trip with a small group of researchers including a dean who also teaches with Ibaraki University.

“My name is Yayoi Haraguchi, Ibaraki University.”

Once Professor Terada’s group wrapped up its visit to Alabama, we caught up with Dean Haraguchi in her office on campus northeast of Tokyo. She was surprised by the differences she found in Anniston between parts of town.

“Yes, I saw some two different communities, a very active and vital side of Anniston and then the other side, quiet and some vacant spaces,” Dean Haraguchi remembers.

In fact, the Japanese are no strangers to PCB contamination. In 1968, they had an issue of their own with what has become known as the Yusho incident. This occurrence helped to alert the international community on the danger of PCBs.

“That was an acute exposure. People ingested cooking oil that had been contaminated with Polychlorinated Biphenyls which are persistent, pervasive, and toxic.”

That's Dr. Ellen Griffith spears. She is a professor and researcher at the University of Alabama, and she shares an interest in environmental justice with Professor Terada and Dean Haraguchi. Her book “Baptized in PCBs” is considered a milestone in the fight for environmental justice. It focuses on the dangers that Anniston residents faced.

According to Dr. Spears, “Monsanto knew that... They had been told in 1937, at a meeting at the Harvard School of Public Health that these chemicals were very damaging to workers, and... severe chloracne, liver disease... Now, we know there are lots of other serious health problems.”

Dr. Spears met with the group of Japanese researchers at her office at the University of Alabama.

“What I found in talking with Professor Terada and Dean Haraguchi, was that we had very similar interests in the social, environmental, and health consequences...” she says, “One of the things that they're proposing, which I think, I’d be very excited if this comes to fruition, is to bring together communities that have been impacted; community activists and individuals who have been impacted by PCB exposure in the US and Japan and I can see an effort like that expanding to many other places around the globe.”

The final destination in APR’s truck tour with David Baker is the old Monsanto plant. Across Highway 202 is what looks like a small mountain. It’s surrounded by a chain link fence and has warning signs.

“You see how high that mountain is right there. It used to be down this low, but they've been burying... they buried PCBs in that, in that mountain in that, well now it’s a mountain but its PCBs,” Baker says, “They try to they try to cap it and surround it to keep it in but the PCBs still leaks. It just goes all the way through here. You see that road right there. You see that mountain over there? That’s full of PCBs.”

It has been twenty years since Monsanto and its subsidiary Solutia agreed to pay a settlement of close to 700 million dollars to more than 20,000 residents of Anniston. The jury is out whether the lawsuit did enough to help with the ongoing effects of the pollution to the small community in northeast Alabama. Baker continues to be involved in the struggle

Baker says, “People love making money, but you got to understand whatever you make, you got to make sure that you’re not hurting somebody in the meanwhile while you’re making it.”

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