What We Are Made Of

Population Health

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been monitoring Americans’ bodies for the presence of 212 chemicals, detailing the variety of pollutants stored in their bones, muscle, blood, and fat. The CDC’s explicit goals are “to determine which chemicals are getting into [Americans] and at what concentrations” and what impact these chemicals might have. One broad category of chemicals the CDC has been following, chlorinated hydrocarbons (such as vinyl chloride and polychlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT) can be found in virtually every living thing on earth, from the shrimp that swim in the salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico, to the poultry and red meat that have become staples of the American diet, to our children’s and our own hair and body fat. And one subset of chlorinated hydrocarbons—PCBs—long-identified as the cause of chloracne (systemic skin eruptions), neurological problems, and liver disease is now determined to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The first CDC list of chemical compounds from 1999-2000 included lead, manganese, mercury, and the traditional heavy metal poisons. To the original list, 75 new chemicals have been added, including: phthalates; 29 volatile organic compounds; 4 environmental phenols; 4 disinfection biproducts; 12 perfluorinated compounds; and 3 “non-dioxin like” PCBs. Scientists do not know what the long-term effects of these chemicals will be, nor do they understand the synergistic effects of combining so many novel materials in unknown quantities on complex biological systems. 

The petrochemical, plastics, and rubber industries producing these toxins and toxic products argue that until it can be definitively proven that these chemicals in our bodies are dangerous, they have no obligation to remove them from the market or recall products from homes, schools and workplaces. They reject the idea that they should prove their products safety before exposing the entire population despite the fact that in the past they have acknowledged their responsibility to do so.

But in Washington State and elsewhere around the nation this self-serving rationale for inaction is being challenged in a series of lawsuits brought on behalf of children and parents. In the Seattle school system parents claim children have suffered neurological and other types of injuries resulting from exposures to polychlorinated hydrocarbons that have leaked over the years from the ballasts of light fixtures and rained vapors into the air they breathed. The PCBs, used widely as plasticizers and insulators in thousands of products worldwide, were produced solely by the Monsanto Corporation in the United States and by Bayer and a few other major chemical companies in the rest of the world from the mid-1930s until the late 1970s. When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed by the US Congress in 1978, Monsanto was ordered to stop their production. By then, PCBs had been identified as a “world-wide ecological problem,” and animal studies had shown that they were possible carcinogens.

We tell the longer history of this unique ban of an industrial chemical elsewhere but, suffice it to say, part of the reason for the unprecedented decision by Congress to stop Monsanto from producing PCBs was the unethical behavior of Monsanto and its unwillingness to reveal information about its harms. The most striking example was the use of fraudulent scientific data to fool federal officials into allowing continued use of PCBs through much of the 1970s. A criminal trial and jailing of a Monsanto employee and two others from the private testing lab Monsanto had hired to conduct the “studies” confirmed the duplicity of the company.

Despite the revelations, bans on production, and convictions, PCBs continue to present a danger to Americans throughout the country. While the ban stopped its production, millions of pounds of PCBs remain in the environment. One specific location is in the light fixtures of thousands of schools throughout the nation built before 1978. PCBs were used in fluorescent light fixtures before that time and have remained in all that have not been replaced. Today, PCB fumes and liquids leak into the air and onto the floors of these schools, where children and teachers inhale and ingest them. Despite the knowledge that sooner or later these leaking ballasts would prove a threat to all who came in contact with them, Monsanto “washed its hands” of the problem by ignoring its responsibility to remediate the threats in these schools.

In recent years, Monsanto has been brought to court in efforts to hold the company accountable for its long history of deceit and denial. In lawsuits brought on behalf of injured students, teachers, and parents in Washington State, juries have found the company liable for millions of dollars in damages in a number of cases. The most recent case, in December 2023, resulted in a jury verdict awarding $857 million to the families of five damaged students. The judgment reflected the extreme outrage at the degree of corporate malfeasance as the punitive damages amounted to $784 million, more than 90% of the total amount awarded.1

Monsanto, and its new corporate owner, Bayer, have a lot to worry about as they face the prospect of a flood of new suits. Attorneys around the country are now suing on behalf of injured children in schools as well as minority communities who live near PCB plants and have been subjected to toxic exposures for decades. Also, state attorneys general are demanding that Monsanto pay for the clean-up of waterways and fisheries where PCBs have been dumped. In Missouri, Washington State, Vermont, Delaware, Illinois, and other locales, Monsanto is facing a reckoning over its past bad behavior.   

The court battles over PCBs are part of a much broader battle over the post-war chemical environment we have created. As we watch the Supreme Court dismantle the environmental regulatory structures that were put in place in the 1970s and as Congress continues to paralyze any efforts to control the petrochemical and other polluting industries, we can expect more and more of the struggles to protect the environment to move to local state courts.


  1. For transparency: I was an expert witness in this case, presenting state of the art evidence of Monsanto’s history of bad behavior.

Rosner D. What We Are Made Of. Milbank Quarterly Opinion. March 5, 2024.

About the Author

David Rosner is the Ronald H. Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and professor of history at Columbia University and codirector of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. He is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine. In addition to numerous grants, he has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Investigator Award, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, and a Josiah Macy Fellow. He and Gerald Markowitz are coauthors on ten books, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (University of California Press/Milbank, 2002; 2013) and Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (University of California Press/Milbank, 2013). He also testifies for plaintiffs in lawsuits on industrial pollution and occupational disease.

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