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"Bad Chemistry" -- Monsanto, Anniston, and Taylor. An APR News Commentary

Members of Taylor Phillips' family in Anniston, Alabama. They were among the 20,000 residents allegedly made ill by toxic chemicals by Monsanto
Taylor Phillips
Members of Taylor Phillips' family in Anniston, Alabama. They were among the 20,000 residents allegedly made ill by toxic chemicals by Monsanto

This year marks two decades since the Monsanto chemical company settled with residents of the town of Anniston. The payments were over health issues blamed on chemicals called PBCs that Monsanto started manufacturing back in the 1930’s. People living in Anniston say the medical problems linked to PCBs didn’t harm just one generation, but many. Alabama Public Radio asked one longtime resident to explain what happened to her family and how it impacted the direction her life would take.

Rayfield Horton
Taylor Phillips
Rayfield Horton

My name is Taylor Phillips. I’m twenty four years old, and this year, I’ll start medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up on the west side of Anniston, Alabama. That’s where the heaviest contamination of PCBs from Monsanto was supposed to be. When I was young, my mother would joke about it. But, the impact of one Monsanto product was more serious than that. It was a group of chemicals called Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs for short.

To get a complete picture of Monsanto, Anniston, and PCBs, you have to go back to the early 1930’s and the story of Rayfield Horton. He was my great grandfather…

The nation was still reeling from the Great Depression when Rayfield got a job as a janitor at the Swann Chemical Company in Anniston. Monsanto later bought the plant where my great-grandfather worked. That was 1935…

One of the fireside chats by President Franklin Roosevelt took place the same year Monsanto bought Swann Chemical. FDR’s plan to save the nation’s economy was called the New Deal. One idea was to bring electricity to rural parts of the country. PCBs were used in electrical insulation, so that was good news for Monsanto

My great-grandfather was just one of the African Americans living in Anniston. They were mainly descended from slaves and sharecroppers. This was also the Jim Crow South. That meant Anniston was segregated. Blacks lived on the rural westside.

Taylor Phillips

The PCBs made by Monsanto were used in things like flameproofing materials, paint, varnish, and even chewing gum. The problem was that two years after Monsanto bought Swann, PCBs were being linked to medical problems.

In 1944, the D-Day invasion took place during World War two. That same year PCBs were officially declared toxic. But nobody told my great grandfather. Monsanto salesmen were warned to stay clear of the chemicals. That information didn’t filter down to any of the black men working maintenance jobs at the plant. The company didn’t even provide protective gear. All of those details would be in the lawsuit against Monsanto that was coming.


That would go on until my great grandfather retired in 1969. That’s the year astronauts landed on the Moon. It’s also when my family started getting sick. By the mid-nineteen seventies, all three of my surviving great grandparents had suffered strokes. They were only in their late forties and early fifties.

In 1977, Monsanto was pressured to quit making PCBs. Two years later, the EPA ordered a nation-wide ban. During the 1990s, my mother’s generation began to experience severe health problems. Women went into preterm labor or suffered preeclampsia. Their newborn children had congenital defects. My own brother was born at only twenty-five weeks. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a year old.

Shirley (Nanny) Jean Glover
Taylor Phillips
Shirley (Nanny) Jean Glover

Around this time, my family started investigating the impact of PCBs. They all had blood tests taken. Both of my parents, my aunt, and my older brother had higher levels of PCBs than the federal government considered safe.

In 2003, the residents of Anniston won a lawsuit against Monsanto. But, it was a bittersweet victory since no dollar amount can restore health that was permanently damaged.

As for me, I spent so much time growing up around doctors and hospitals, that medical school was an obvious choice for my career. I’ll begin my studies at the University of Pennsylvania later this year. As the world looks back on twenty years since the Monsanto settlement, it’s what money doesn’t buy that hurts.

Two years after the settlement, my extended family gathered together for we knew was my grandmother’s last birthday. We all called her Nanny. Her cancer had metastasized to her brain. I was too young to know what that meant. But, I remember Nanny growing more frail every time I saw her. On the weekends, she used to sit me in her lap with a copy of the book Pippi Longstocking. We never finished that book and no settlement will change that.

Editor's note: APR news contacted the Bayer company which acquired Monsanto in 2018. We offered them the chance to be heard on issues related to PCBs in Anniston. Those emails went unanswered.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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  • This month 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
  • It was twenty years ago this month that the Monsanto chemical company settled a lawsuit with residents of Anniston. Illnesses ranging from cancer to birth defects were blamed on a group of chemicals called PCB’s. But, this isn’t the only example of Alabama residents allegedly being made sick by big industry. Another group all have something in common. They all served in Vietnam. We begin our story with a man APR listeners met last week.
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