It's one thing to hear rumors that major chemical companies knew their products were harming people for decades. It's another to see physical proof, in the form of internal meeting minutes, questionable studies, and other documents from the 1930s to 1970s that all show companies strategically continued to sell chemicals despite clear evidence they could hurt animals, people and the environment.
That's exactly why investigative journalist Peter von Stackelberg and a small but dedicated team worked to digitize and post more than 100,000 pages of documents dubbed the "Poison Papers" online last year, so everyone could see for themselves.
The papers show wide-ranging issues not only with companies, but more importantly with the regulatory agencies meant to oversee the industry, von Stackelberg explains.
"As I got deeper and deeper into it, I couldn't continue to ignore the fact that there was something seriously wrong with the industry and the regulatory system," says von Stackelberg, who first started reporting on the chemical industry decades ago.
The documents, including private corporate minutes, were largely obtained by Oregon woman Carol Van Strum and others through legal battles and public records requests starting back in the 1970s.
Among many other issues, some documents show that chemical manufacturer Monsanto knew a family of chemicals known as PCBs were harmful, persistent contaminants back in the '50s, '60s and earlier, yet continued to prioritize their sale for years.
Those same explosive revelations are part of the basis for a lawsuit the city of Spokane filed against Monsanto, as the city continues to deal with a legacy of PCB contamination in the Spokane River. Washington state has also filed a similar suit.
Von Stackelberg, now a college lecturer and futurist, will speak about the damning evidence contained in the documents during a free event at Gonzaga on Thursday, Sept. 27, hosted by the university's Environmental Law and Land Use Clinic.
The event, "Monsanto, PCBs, and the Spokane River," will start at 6 pm in the Barbieri Courtroom, 721 N. Cincinnati St., and will focus on contamination in Spokane, the city's lawsuit, and offer a look at new technological developments and how they might need to be regulated into the future.
In about 1980, when von Stackelberg was a young reporter at a daily paper in Regina, Saskatchewan, he heard rumors that the provincial government might be looking to ban more than 100 chemicals commonly used in agriculture.
As a political reporter who also covered the ag industry, he knew that would be a huge deal, so he started digging.
He learned the Canadian government was actually trying to learn about a long list of chemicals that had been safety tested at Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT) in the United States, because the lab's practices had been questioned. Then, he obtained the list.
"The list of chemicals was actually jaw dropping in terms of the ones where there were serious questions about the safety studies," von Stackelberg says.
Over the course of about nine months, he reported about questionable pesticides, drugs, food additives such as artificial sweeteners and more. It appeared there were issues at dozens of labs, and that chemical companies had known about concerns around their products for years, von Stackelberg says.
Eventually, multiple criminal charges came against those who ran IBT.
But while there was some initial publicity around the chemical industry's alleged misdeeds, the stories eventually dwindled. The other labs and chemical companies weren't taken to task for their roles.
"The whole thing sort of faded away and 40 years later, we're still dealing with the pollution, the corruption, the fraud and so on," von Stackelberg says. "I call IBT the original sin of the EPA regulatory system. It's never been something I would say can be trusted."
While he went into the story not having a position one way or the other, von Stackelberg says it was hard not to lose faith in government agencies that were supposed to be regulatory checks on the industry.
"You've got to be an absolute idiot after unearthing that information not to come to the position that there's something wrong with the regulation system when dozens of chemical companies, and more than 50 labs have a pattern of incompetence, fraud and criminal conduct in some cases," he says.
Now, von Stackelberg and the Poison Papers team, which includes the Bioscience Resource Project and the Center for Media and Democracy, are trying to make sure that story and others like it don't die there.
MONSANTO AND SPOKANE
In 2015, the city of Spokane sued Monsanto over pollution in the Spokane River from polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly called PCBs, claiming the city "has suffered, and continues to suffer, monetary damages to be proven at trial," due to Monsanto's actions. The case is ongoing and deals with what Monsanto knew while continuing to sell the products.
PCBs were used in some household products, including waxes, swimming pool paints and chlorinators, but were more commonly used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment.
Congress banned production of the extremely persistent chemicals by the late 1970s, but they continue to leach out of the products they were used in and into the river. PCBs are believed to cause reproductive issues as well as increased risks for some cancers. In some places, fish from the Spokane River are not safe enough to eat due to PCB levels.
"The city's argument is, 'Hey now we're stuck with paying for this cleanup, so Monsanto, you need to come pay for part of this,'" says Rick Eichstaedt, a Gonzaga law professor and director of the Environmental Law and Land Use Clinic.
The lawsuit relies on some of the same evidence now posted on poisonpapers.org.
One such document is a report of an internal ad hoc committee within Monsanto, dated Oct. 2, 1969.
The document notes there was little chance that Monsanto could stop the incrimination of PCBs "as nearly global environmental contaminants leading to contamination of human food (particularly fish), the killing of some marine species (shrimp), and the possible extinction of several species of fish-eating birds."
But while the report notes the right thing to do is warn customers and start working with federal agencies to control the substances, it and other documents make it clear that internal company deliberations came with the constant reminder not to forget the bottom line: Sales of the chemicals were worth millions.
The first objective of that ad hoc committee? To "protect continued sales and profits" from PCBs.
"Your city's paying the bill for Monsanto's behavior in the '60s, '70s and '80s," von Stackelberg says. "They profited then, you're paying the bill now." ♦