Environmental Health

Toxic pollution: chemical giants free from all liability?

by Rachel Knaebel

‘Manufacturers must answer for the poisoning caused by PCBs!’ demands the Coalition against Bayer Dangers, a German organisation that has fought against the abuse of the German chemical multinational corporation for 35 years.

This article was originally published in French. Translation: Jocelyn Timperley.

PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls – are industrial products used from the 1930s up to the 1980s in transformers, seals, paints and flooring. They are highly chlorinated organic compounds, and very toxic. Being lowly soluble in water, they accumulate instead in fatty tissues up the food chain, with consequences for human health including cancers and fertility problems. PCBs have been banned in France for thirty years, but thousands of buildings are still contaminated by them. A European directive transposed into French law in the early 2000s requires their removal.

In total, 1.3 million tons of PCBs have been produced in the world since the 1930s,’ says the Coalition against Bayer Dangers. The German chemical giant Bayer was one of the two leading producers of these toxic PCBs, along with Monsanto. ‘Around half of these 1.3 million tonnes has come out of factories of the American firm Monsanto. With 160,000 tonnes, or 12% of total production, Bayer is second, followed by Russian manufacturers and the French manufacturer Prodelec.’ And Bayer continued to produce and sell PCBs, even after they had been banned in the US. ‘In 1977, when the United States banned the manufacture of PCBs, the annual production of Bayer rose from 6,000 to 7,500 tonnes. It wasn’t until 1983 that Bayer ceased production – the last of all western firms to do so.

A shared responsibility for thousands of poisonings

Today, however, the German firm does not participate in clean-up costs. ‘The decontamination will cost billions of euros. Manufacturers have hidden the risks for decades, and now they unload the costs of clean-up on the community,’ says the Coalition against Bayer Dangers.

The association will therefore submit a counterproposal (see here) on this subject at Bayer’s next General Assembly on April 29. Representatives of the Coalition will present their demands to the shareholders. The proposal requests that Bayer contribute to the costs of decontaminating the buildings affected by PCBs and create a fund for people whose health has been harmed by the toxicant. ‘Monsanto, Bayer and Prodelec knew for decades the risks posed by PCBs,’ says Philipp Mimkes, Director of the Coalition’s executive committee. ‘They therefore share responsibility for thousands of poisonings. It is more than time for these firms to bear part of the costs of decontamination and treatment of victims.

Rachel Knaebel