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Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Dirty Soil and Diabetes

Exposure to PCBs in the soil in Anniston, Ala., has left residents fighting diabetes and other health effects
Environmental injustice, chevron, richmond, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color



David Tulis

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Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 Part 4 and Part 5 of the Special Report

ANNISTON, Ala. – The Rev. Thomas Long doesn't have neighbors on Montrose Avenue anymore. Everyone is gone.

Widespread chemical contamination from a Monsanto plant was discovered in this quiet city in the Appalachian foothills back in the 1990s. In West Anniston, behind Long’s home, a church was fenced off, and men in "moon suits" cleaned the site for weeks. Nearby, boarded windows and sunken porches hang from abandoned shotgun houses. Stray dogs roam the narrow streets. A red "nuisance" sign peeks above the un-mowed lawn of one empty house. Bulldozers will be here soon.

But Long stayed. He was the only one on his street who chose not to move; he had lived in the same house for all but one of his 64 years.

Now he is stuck. Stuck on a street with no neighbors. Stuck with a property he's convinced is unclean. Stuck with an extraordinary load of chemicals in his body. And stuck with diabetes.

As the Environmental Protection Agency's oversight of the cleanup of this neighborhood stretches into its eighth year, new research has linked PCBs exposure to a high rate of diabetes in this community of about 4,000 people, nearly all African American and half living in poverty.

The findings add to a picture of the town's poor health following decades of contamination. It's the latest chapter in a saga that this poverty-stricken, powerless community feels has dragged on far too long.

"Monsanto walked away not doing their job. They left a community still sick, still dying and very dissatisfied," Long said.

Stubborn chemicals
Even today, people in West Anniston are among the most highly contaminated in the world.

For four decades, from 1929 until 1971, a Monsanto plant in West Anniston produced chemicals called PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls. Somehow – even today no one is quite sure how – the chemicals got into the soil and waterways.

Used mostly to insulate large electrical capacitors and transformers, PCBs were one of the most widely used industrial substances on Earth until they were banned in the United States, and most other developed countries, in the late 1970s.

PCBs are stubborn chemicals. They persist in soil and sediment for decades, perhaps centuries, and are locked away in the fatty tissues of animals, building up in food webs. Seventy percent of all the PCBs ever made are still in the environment.

The old Monsanto plant, now operated by Solutia Inc., doesn't have menacing smokestacks. PCBs are colorless, virtually invisible. But the health risks here are hiding in plain sight.

In Anniston, class action lawsuits were filed and settled. The national media came and went. Monsanto split up and left town. Some residents took buyouts and moved. Other houses were abandoned and with fenced off. Thousands of properties have been cleaned. A landfill just a short walk from Long's home has been filled with tainted soil removed from yards in the neighborhood. In 2003, Solutia and Monsanto paid a $600 million settlement to more than 20,000 people based on their exposure to PCBs. An additional $100 million was to be spent on cleanup and other programs.

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.

Anniston residents have up to seven times more PCBs in their bodies than the average for other Americans, Birnbaum said, citing data from the federal government's Anniston Community Health Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

PCBs exposure in Anniston residents under 55 trumped both age and family history as a risk factor for diabetes. Even low PCBs exposures were linked to the disease.

"It seems to be real," said Ronald Jandacek, a metabolic disease specialist at the University of Cincinnati who was not involved in the study. "It seems to be independent of body weight," which is the typical risk factor for diabetes.

Birnbaum said "there's really pretty clear evidence" that exposure to a variety of chemicals contributes to diabetes. Included are the pesticide chlordane, arsenic, tributyltin, nicotine, tobacco smoke and bisphenol A. This evidence spans across animal, cellular and human studies, she said.

In previous research, PCBs and related compounds were linked to diabetes in studies of women who consumed contaminated rice in Taiwan and contaminated milk in Michigan in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, the overall evidence linking PCBs and diabetes is mixed, Birnbaum said, although PCBs are similar in structure to dioxins, which have been strongly linked to diabetes. "I think the data on the non-dioxin-like PCBs, which are the overwhelming mass of the total PCBs, is not as clear," Birnbaum said.

The chemicals may contribute to diabetes by altering insulin production, disrupting related genes or changing glucose transport or fat metabolism, according to scientists.

High PCBs levels also have put the residents at risk for high-blood pressure and hypertension, autoimmune diseases and thyroid disorders, according to the Anniston Community Health Survey.

Seniors at risk
Anniston residents over the age of 55 had the most PCBs in their bodies. Like the younger group, older residents with high exposures also had more diabetes than those with low exposures. But because there were so few older residents with low PCBs exposures, it was hard to nail down precisely how much more, the study authors wrote. Birnbaum's agency, which is heavily involved in researching low-income, minority communities, plans to re-examine the PCBs levels, taking a closer look at the older residents' health problems.

Long is one of the older West Anniston residents living with the disease as well as high PCBs concentrations in his body.

"I have diabetes and it's uncontrolled. Lost an eye," Long said. "I'm legally blind, really."

At 64, he’s old enough to know he can't blame his condition entirely on PCBs. After all, he's black and elderly, and he knows that both increase his risk of diabetes. That's a burden of proof that much of the community grapples with.

Long said he had 63.8 ppb of PCBs in his blood when he was tested during the state's initial exposure investigation in 1995. He has no idea what his levels are today because he has not been tested in any follow-up studies. That concentration is on the high end compared with the 2005 community data.

A clinic was set up to treat those with health issues that have previously been linked to PCBs exposure. But diabetes didn’t qualify, despite the connection found in the new study.

"I didn't even qualify to get a dime," Long said. "You can have PCBs in your body and you can have a severe case of uncontrollable diabetes, but you don't qualify to receive any of the grant money from this slush fund that's supposed to be compensating you for your health condition."

Travis Bradford, an Army veteran, said he was forced to pay taxes on the settlement he received.

"First time I ever known to get a tax claim on our health," Bradford said, standing in the American Legion parking lot, which overlooks a PCB dump. "Where did all the money go?

Monsanto declined to comment on the issues in Anniston since its chemical business has been reorganized into Solutia Inc., a separate company. Monsanto now focuses solely on agricultural chemicals.

A spokesperson for Solutia would not comment on the study that found a link to diabetes. "Solutia's role in Anniston is not to focus on studies based on loose science, but rather to lead activities to investigate and/or remediate PCB-containing soils as is defined in Solutia's partial consent decree with the U.S. EPA,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Silverstone said Monsanto promised to provide a free clinic for exposed people, and to do further studies, but they haven't done it.

"I think that's really unfair given how much PCBs are there, and how much money they made," he said. "Here's a population of people that deserve to have a really thorough health study. I think our survey was pretty good but it wasn't as thorough as it could have been. If we had more resources and more time and more help, we could do a lot more."

More research on the community's health is coming, and more is needed, researchers say. But there is no wonder drug for PCBs, and residents are skeptical that more health studies will do any good.

"As a community, we are just in a mess," said Shirley Carter, a community organizer and former nurse who had a big hand in the diabetes study. "All the money is gone. People are getting to the point where they really don't care about nothing no more."

Brian Whatley, 39, lives with Anniston’s toxic legacy every day. Both of his parents have diabetes, he said, standing in front of his father's manicured corner yard in West Anniston.

"We've been shorthanded," Whatley said. "All I can do is just pray about it and let it go."

A corner-store cure?
When Victor Yushchenko – the former president of the Ukraine – was poisoned with dioxins, he was treated with olestra, a synthetic fat substitute. A research team has run with that idea and just finished a clinical trial in Anniston to test delivering an olestra payload via a familiar vessel – Pringles chips.

People with high levels of PCBs in their blood consumed the same amount of calories from either the fat-free, olestra Pringle chip or another chip for one year. An analysis of the data by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to arrive later this month.

The Pringles treatment might sound farfetched, but it has worked in the past, albeit in a sample of one.

An Australian man had been taking apart electric transformers and had his hands immersed in PCBs to the point of severe PCB poisoning. "He was like a walking test tube for what PCBs did," Jandacek said.

Researchers gave him olestra-based chips for over two years and his condition improved, Jandacek said.

Olestra is a blunt tool to reduce that exposure. It blocks a cycle in the body where substances that have absorbed into fat tissue move into the blood, then into other organs, and then back into fat tissue. Olestra shoots right through the gut, intercepting organic compounds such as PCBs.

Proctor and Gamble, maker of Pringles, had no involvement, though the study's lead author, Jandacek, worked there until 10 years ago. The National Institutes of Health funded it.

The community might turn its nose up at such a low-budget treatment. But the only thing that's been done for them in the past is to have their PCBs levels measured, Jandacek said.

"At least we were coming with a slightly different message that we're going to try to help,” Jandacek said.

Help is much needed since exposure to PCBs doesn't end with an environmental cleanup, Birnbaum said.

"PCBs and dioxins have very long half-lives in your body," Birnbaum said. "People are still being exposed even if they are not getting it from their environment."

Just too slow
Residents and scientists say that the EPA and Solutia are dragging their feet.

"The whole approach to the cleanup is way too slow," Silverstone said. "It's obvious that there is some continuing exposure on some level…If you look at their body burdens, they still had a fair amount of the short-term PCBs in their blood at the time we took the sampling in 2005."

At the bottom of Montrose Street, just across from the American Legion, is the Miller Property (named after the former property owner). A rusty chain link fence is all that prevents the dumpsite from being used as a shortcut between the 12th Street housing projects and 10th Street. The grass-covered hills are actually soil tainted with PCBs at a concentration less than 10 parts per million.

"That's considered non-hazardous soil," said Pam Scully, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the Anniston sites. Soil with PCBs greater than or equal to 50 parts per million must go to a hazardous waste landfill.

Further south, older landfills blend in with the Appalachian foothills. Solutia owns these properties. The EPA does not monitor them, Scully said.

Scully said that all but a few of 600 residential properties that the EPA has access to have been cleaned. The others are scheduled for cleanup this summer or fall. Scully said about 40 or 50 properties remain where the EPA hasn't been able to get access to clean them, either because the owners don't want their yards disturbed or for other reasons.

The EPA cleans the top foot of soil if PCBs are greater than 1 ppm. They clean below that to whatever depth is required to get PCBs less than 10 ppm, Scully said.

Some residents think that’s not enough.

"What they want to do is come in there and scratch in your yard and tell you everything is OK,” said Walt Frazier, a real estate agent in Anniston. “But then they tell you, 'you can't plant this or grow a garden, you can't eat the pecans."

Nevertheless, Scully said the PCBs levels remaining after cleanup in people's yards are not a health threat.

"We have not prohibited anybody from installing a garden," she said. "The whole point of the cleanup was so they could use their yards. I understand that people may have a fear of doing it but that's not our intent."

To understand why the cleanup is taking so long, it requires an understanding of the convoluted system that bogs down every Superfund-caliber site, often for several decades. Consent decrees, records of decisions and operable zones are all part of the process. Ask the EPA about any ongoing part of the Anniston cleanup – Snow and Choccolocco Creeks, the plant itself – and you'll hear that negotiations with Solutia are still ongoing.

"I know there is a lot of frustration," Scully said. "I’m just hopeful that people will hang in there with us and help us get through the process."

Tastes like dirt
In some African American communities in the South, eating dirt is a cultural phenomenon, learned by one generation from the previous, especially among women.

"People here used to eat the dirt," said Carter, the community activist. "It had PCBs in it. Back long, long time ago, people used to always eat it, and just crave it."

About five years ago, Kevin Grigsby of the Association of American Medical Colleges and an expert on pica, or the tendency to eat something other than normal food, got a call from the CDC saying they'd found several young, black women who had PCBs in their bodies, but the scientists didn't think it came from the water or from game or fish.

The CDC scientist, whose name Grigsby can't remember, asked if it was true that these young women could possibly be digging up the clay and eating it. "Absolutely," Grigsby told him.

"We see this as an odd and strange behavior, but for a lot of folks, this is just something that grandma did and it's not that eye-raising," Grigsby said. "I think I lent some validity that a source of the PCBs was perhaps not game or fish but was just eating the clay."

Not only has the contamination compromised the health and character of the community, it has disrupted a cultural practice, albeit a risky one. A one-size-fits-all cleanup isn't good enough, Grigsby said. A cleanup should be culturally sensitive.

"If you were doing a cleanup in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, it would be very different than what you would do in Anniston, Alabama."

Fruit of the past
Plenty of homes near Long’s house are lovingly occupied, but the fruit and vegetable gardens are gone. No one trusts that the soil is clean.

Frazier, the real estate agent, is driving through West Anniston toward Montrose Avenue. He points out three PCBs landfills within a short walk of the street. At Long's house, he spots something that used to be a staple in the community: fresh fruit.

"You see that plum right there?" Frazier said, eyeing one growing wild in the woods next to Long's house. "We used to eat them plums all the time. Man, this used to be the thaaang right here. I used to tear these up."

He plucks it, and turns it over in his hands a few times, fighting the urge to taste it. Then he side-arms it back into the woods, and turns and walks toward the PCBs dump at the bottom of Montrose.

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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