Anniston’s PCBs contamination qualifies as a Superfund site, making it one of the most contaminated places in the country. However, it has been designated a Superfund Alternative Approach site because Solutia and Pharmacia (the pharmaceutical split-off from Monsanto) agreed in 2000 to clean up the contamination with oversight by the EPA.
Over the past few decades, scientists have linked exposure to PCBs to a long list of health problems: immune suppression, thyroid gland damage, skin disorders, anemia, liver cancer and impaired reproduction. Children exposed in the womb to high levels of PCBs have reduced IQs, including problems with memory and motor skills, as well as weakened immune systems that make them more prone to illness, according to research conducted in Great Lakes and Arctic populations. The EPA classifies them as probable human carcinogens.
Now scientists are finding links between PCBs and some of these diseases in West Anniston. The latest: diabetes, a serious disease that involves dangerous levels of sugar in the blood.
"This was a community of sharecroppers and the production waste was thrown into the ground, into the floodplain," said Allen Silverstone, a PCBs expert at State University of New York Upstate Medical University who was lead author of the diabetes study. "So they ate this stuff from 1929 until at least 1990 – even though they stopped production in '71-'72 – because the ground was just loaded with this stuff."
Double the diabetes
In 2001, the federal government launched a committee to study health effects in Anniston residents related to their longtime PCBs exposure. Four years later, after a reported spike in diabetes, Silverstone and colleagues studied 774 adults in Anniston, oversampling for West Anniston, where exposure was the greatest. Almost half were African American.
The scientists discovered that the diabetes rate in the West Anniston group was more than double the U.S. average. Twenty-seven percent had diabetes, compared with 12.9 percent in the United States and 16 percent in all of Anniston.
Anniston residents with diabetes had much higher PCBs levels in their bodies – on average 27 percent more – than those who did not have the disease, according to the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in May. It was funded by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Those with the highest PCBs exposures were nearly three times more likely to have diabetes than those with the lowest exposures, according to the study. For residents under 55, the difference was even larger – nearly five times the rate.
Nonwhites in the study had greater concentrations of PCBs in their bodies than whites, as well as a greater prevalence of diabetes. On average, the people tested had lived in Anniston for 29 years.
Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said the new diabetes study “shows that in Anniston there is an association [between diabetes and PCBs], especially in women, and especially in young women.”
The risk of diabetes was highest for women, who have more fatty tissue to sequester PCBs, compared to men in the same age groups.
"It’s a substantial risk," Silverstone said. "You're talking about a three- to four-fold increased risk in females under 55."
Although production of PCBs ended 41 years ago, people in Anniston still have levels in their bodies similar to what people in Michigan had back in 1976, according to the new study. The amounts ranged from a low of 0.11 to a high of 170.42 parts per billion. Older residents, those over 55, had the highest levels.