GE’s PCBs: Who Will Tell the Fish

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Marlaine Browning

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally intended as an online resource.  Most documents, therefore, are referenced by their www publications.  Most of these sources are available in print form. For more information on the Hudson River cleanup, please contact Riverkeeper ( and Hudson Watch ( or]

AGAINST PREVAILING SCIENTIFIC wisdom, an August 2001 General Electric press release declares that “there is no credible evidence that PCB exposure causes disease in people.”

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, are various mixtures of 209 individual chlorinated compounds first manufactured by Swann Chemical Company around 1880.  PCBs were once considered a miracle-product for manufacturers because of their water insolubility, high tolerance for heat, and chemical stability.

These properties led to their widespread usage in the manufacturing of products as diverse as inks, vacuum pump fluids, carbonless paper, lubricants, heat transfer media, hydraulic and other industrial fluids, plasticizers, fillers in investment casting waxes, surface coatings and sealants, and pesticide extenders.

Decades after the initial appearance of PCBs, major companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse realized that these compounds were detrimental to human health and the environment.  In fact, GE managers noticed the health risks associated with PCBs as early as 1936.

At first, they were appalled and ready to purge PCBs from their manufacturing operations.  But recognizing that PCBs had become an integral part of their industrial processes, company officials were reluctant to discontinue PCB usage.  As one GE executive confessed, “We might just as well have thrown our business to the winds and said, ‘We’ll close up.'” (See note 1)

Enough was known about PCBs, by 1978, to warrant their discontinuation.  By this time, however, GE had been discharging PCB-laced effluent in the Hudson River for decades.  Given that PCBs have no known taste or smell and may range from oily liquids to a vapor, there is reason to be alarmed at its presence in the environment insofar as they may go undetected by the unsuspecting.

Shifting the Decimals

In 1976, Environmental Conservation Commissioner Ogden Reid charged GE with violating water standards in the Hudson River.  During the trial, Dr. Gerald Lauer, one of GE’s expert witnesses, testified that the fish caught near the electrical plants showed no contamination above FDA limits.

The next day, however, an attorney from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) forced Lauer to admit that decimal points had been shifted in his reports and in fact all of the fish were highly contaminated. (See note 2)

Judge Sofaer found GE liable under the 1972 Clean Water Act for “corporate abuse” of its state-issued permits.

Jack Welch, CEO and corporate poster child of General Electric, has dodged the Hudson River cleanup for twenty-six years.  Welch has evaded responsibility for the cleanup by hurling charges that there is “no definitive proof” that PCB exposure is harmful.

In December 1999, fifteen years after the Hudson was named as the largest U.S. Superfund site, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) again demanded that GE clean up the Hudson River.  If GE refused to comply, it could be fined in excess of $25,000 for each delayed day.

GE responded by declaring the Superfund law unconstitutional, thus opening the most recent Hudson River suit. During a twenty-month anti-dredging campaign from 2000-01, GE spent millions of shareholder dollars on corporate propaganda.  They flooded the public with infomercials and full-page ads, swamped bus stations, and car bumpers.

One company-sponsored phone survey asked whether the resident was a member of any environmental organizations.  If the answer were “yes,” the surveyor would thank the resident for his or her time and hang up, thus purging environmentalists from its poll sample. (See note 3)

Hot Spots

The EPA-proposed cleanup of the Hudson would focus on a 35-mile stretch of heavily contaminated “hot spots” north of the Federal Dam at Troy. Half of the forty hot spots occur in the Thompson Island Pool, a 5.2-mile stretch north of the Thompson Island Dam. The EPA claims this will reduce the 500 lbs of PCBs spilling over the dam by 40% and will remove 100,000 lbs of toxic chemicals.

According to the EPA, dredging “would reduce risks to health and fish by five times immediately following the cleanup.  The State will be able to relax fish consumption advisories within two years after the cleanup is completed.” (See note 4)

A chemical report issued by Monsanto, the sole manufacturer of PCBs, reads, “Care should be taken to prevent entry of PCBs into the environment through spills, leakage, use, vaporization or disposal of liquids or solids.  PCBs can accumulate in the environment and can adversely affect some animals and aquatic life.” (See note 5)

Once in the environment, PCBs gather in the fatty tissue of plants and animals through the process of bioaccumulation, and have been found in many birds, whales, otters, fish, bears and people living either near or not so near a contaminated site.

Yet GE claims on its Hudson River website ( that the “Hudson River is an ecosystem in the midst of a robust natural recovery with healthy and diverse wildlife populations.”  Though many researchers do agree the Hudson supports an abundance of wildlife species, they also agree it is hardly on its way to a “natural” recovery.

PCB levels are lower now than 1976 because the Clean Water Act has been in effect for thirty years and PCBs have been banned for twenty-four years.  Furthermore, most of the purported lessening of PCBs in the water supply regrettably is due not to PCB breakdown, but rather, the absorption of this chemical by the animals that encounter it.

Chemicals Over the Dam

Initially, GE claimed the Hudson River PCBs rested undisturbed at the river bottom.  Then, when PCBs were found in creek water, soils, sediments, runoff, leachate and pond effluent (See note 6) surrounding the Hudson, GE realized the PCBs were actually moving downstream, and changed its campaign.

This new strategy employed the “we’re-bad-but-they’re-worse” maneuver.  No matter how many PCBs were in the water now, GE stated, the EPA would only make it worse by kicking up the sediments.  Press releases conjured images of PCB-poisoned silt stirred into clouds of toxic water by the unskilled EPA, killing populations of animals and children.

A National Academy of Sciences report did indicate that 38 lbs of PCBs could be stirred up each year during dredging.  Currently, however, 500 lbs of PCB waste spill annually over the Troy dam. Moreover, the latest equipment in hydraulic dredging is peaceful enough that an underwater camera can film the cleanup undisturbed.

Next, GE reasoned since there was a fishing ban, anyone suggesting PCBs were a threat would be accusing people of breaking the law. Since GE assumed people don’t break the law, the problem was solved, and no cleanup was necessary!

Obviously, however, fish do not give a tail-flip about where GE says they can and cannot swim. They regularly leave the contaminated pools to swim downstream, thus adding to the bioaccumulation that is occurring regardless of current regulations.

Finally, a GE 2001 press release noted, “this action from the EPA bureaucracy is a misguided attempt to punish a corporation that lawfully discharged PCBs thirty years ago, not a sensible effort to advance public health or the ecosystem of the river.”

The “lawful discharge” to which GE refers is part of its newest propaganda.  Many researchers have scrupulously searched for these lawful discharge permits to which GE refers, only to realize that these documents don’t exist.

From 1946 until 1972 General Electric poured libations of PCBs into the narrow bowl of river between its electrical plants without fear of regulations or permits; there were none. It wasn’t until 1972, six years before PCBs were banned, that the Clean Water Act was established and GE applied for its permits.

According to Superfund law, a company must clean areas it contaminates regardless of whether it is adhering to the current PCB-release standards.  If a company is permitted to dump twenty pounds of waste one year, but only ten pounds the next, the company may exceed its legal limit if it is not watchful of how much waste still remains in the river from the previous year.

In the Hudson River case, the earlier contamination GE dumped before the need for permits added to its later waste, resulting in an excess of PCBs. GE argues it only dumped the legal limit of PCBs into the river, and this may be true, but it only monitored this release for six years before PCBs were banned, and only after it was forced by environmental organizations to limit this waste.

The Experiment is on Us

Twenty years ago, Welch challenged GE critics to definitively prove that PCBs posed a health risk. But this is a matter of percentages.  If 85% of scientific evidence reveals PCBs are deleterious to human health, this is a clear majority but it is not “definitive proof.”

To reach the nirvana of “definitive proof,” there must be unanimous agreement among all scientific studies; one unfavorable study, such as the GE-sponsored Kimbraugh study, lowers the percentage.

Scientists face many methodological difficulties when testing humans.  Most people will not volunteer for a lifetime study in which they exist only in a sterile lab setting and receive prescribed food laced with quantities of a probable carcinogen like PCBs.

Therefore, unless the chemical instantly kills someone, it’s extremely difficult to offer “definitive proof” based on human research, even if the evidence were highly suggestive of toxicity.

Law and policy-makers have typically relied on the principle that majority rules for the Hudson River case, even without the consensus of definitive proof.  This is why, despite GE’s lambasting against “no definitive proof,” the courts have ruled in favor of eliminating PCBs from our industrial diet.

In an online article posted August 2001 to GE’s Hudson River website, GE cites two primary sources as evidence that PCBs are harmless: a company-sponsored study by Kimbraugh, and the PCB Toxicology Profile released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

General Electric claims the quotes drawn from the Toxicology Report are the conclusions reached by the ATSDR, a federally funded and well-respected research organization.  GE pulls such convincing quotes from the Profile as: “The acute lethality data do not suggest that PCBs would be acutely toxic in humans,” and “The weight of evidence does not support a causal association for PCBs and human cancer at this time.”

GE’s use of quotations from the ATSDR is misleading for two reasons: 1) the ATSDR’s actual conclusions show that PCBs are highly toxic chemicals and probable carcinogens; 2) the report GE quotes from is outdated and not recognized as accurate data for current studies.

The updated ATSDR information from November 2000 belies GE’s claims.  The ATSDR’s hit list of “Twenty Most Dangerous Chemicals for 2000” rank PCBs sixth, just under Mercury, Arsenic, and Lead. PCBs are hardly the tame kitten GE implies.

GE’s quotes match neither the page numbers nor the conclusions drawn by the researchers.  For example, according to GE the ATSDR concludes “The weight of evidence does not support a causal association for PCBs and human cancer at this time.”  The ATSDR report actually says: “The evidence, taken in totality, indicates a potential cancer-causing effect for PCBs. EPA determined that the human data are inadequate, but suggestive, of carcinogenicity.”

The sections in the ATSDR report that GE most often quotes are actually citations of its own Kimbraugh study from the ATSDR toxicological profile.  In fact, the ATSDR criticizes the Kimbraugh study results, and even discounts much of its “human data” for having biased and inaccurate results.

For instance, Kimbraugh’s tested lot of Araclor 1254 (a type of PCB) “had been made by a modified procedure that was made only in the final years of manufacture, and accounted for less than 1% of the total Araclor 1254 production [and exposure] for the years 1958-1977.” (See note 7)

Falsified Results

The ATSDR also criticized the Kimbraugh study for using a small number of test animals, a short testing period, and no follow-up.  Furthermore, Kimbraugh’s results on GE employees have been heavily criticized by many researchers for including secretaries, managers, and office workers among the “exposed,” diluting the test results from the electrical capacitator and hydraulic workers directly exposed to PCBs.

General Electric told the public that “among the 7,075 people studied, the death rate due to all types of cancer was at or significantly below the expected level, based on national standards.”  When the results were re-analyzed, however, the ATSDR found considerable numbers of cancer victims among the hourly-paid employees—typically those working with PCBs.

Despite Kimbraugh’s biases, his results showed elevated cancer rates for six forms of cancer directly related to PCB exposure.  GE’s current press releases regarding the Hudson fail to acknowledge this evidence. (See note 8)

Many other studies reach similar conclusions as the ATSDR Toxicological Profile.  An IARC study sponsored by the National Institute of Health determined 1,310 workers with at least six months exposure to PCBs in a capacitator manufacturing plant showed an excess of all cancers among male workers.  These cancers were mainly found in the digestive system, and the lymphatic and hematopoietic tissues. (See note 9)

A June 2001 study by Susan Schantz concluded that “PCB exposure during adulthood was associated with impairments in memory and learning .  .  .  These results are consistent with previous research showing an association between in utero PCB and impairments of memory during infancy and childhood.” (See note 10)

Even Monsanto warned in 1988 the “consistent finding in animal studies is that PCBs produce liver injury .  .  .  Therefore, exposure by all routes should be kep1 sufficiently low to prevent liver injury.” (See note 11)

Fishing for Toxins

General Electric counters this evidence with the mis-quoted ATSDR Toxicology Profile.  This report supposedly concludes, “The overall evidence suggesting that PCBs may represent a developmental hazard for human health is inconclusive.”

The ATSDR report actually reads, “for those studies with effects, there is consistency in the outcome of lower birth weight for infants exposed in utero to maternal body burdens of PCBs .  .  .  The consistency with which this finding has been demonstrated strengthens the position that PCBs (and related substances) are developmental toxicants.” (See note 12)

Ultimately, the ATSDR concludes, people continue to eat fish contaminated with PCBs because the fish migrate to “unregulated” areas where they are caught.

The weight of evidence from the ATSDR indicates: “1) reproductive function may be disrupted by exposure to PCBs; 2) neurobehavioral and developmental deficits occur in newborns and continue through school-aged children who had in utero exposure to PCBs; 3) other systemic effects (e.g. self-reported liver disease and diabetes, and effects on the thyroid and immune systems) are associated with elevated serum levels of PCBs; and 4) increased cancer risks, e.g. non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, are associated with PCB exposures.” (See note 13)

ATSDR also warns, “Enough scientific information is now available [about PCBs] to warrant actions by health care providers, public health officials, and environmental organizations.” (See note 14)  Even Westinghouse determined in 1971 “there is sufficient evidence that PCBs can be deleterious to the health of animal and human life and that the risks of ignoring the evidence that does exist was inappropriate for Westinghouse.” (See note 15)

The Principle at Stake

Why won’t GE simply clean up the Hudson after all these years?  According to Jack Welch, who’s been on the case since 1976, it’s not the funds but the “principle.”  He says the Hudson should be cleaned “the right way,” by nature, and interfering with this process would wreak widespread environmental devastation.

GE’s history with this issue, however, raises many doubts regarding these leafy-green press releases put out by the company who polluted it. The “principle” at stake here is the precedence an unfavorable ruling would create.  If GE were required to clean the Hudson, it could be required to clean up its eighty other Superfund sites, costing billions in profits and tarnishing its apple-pie image.

At first glance, GE appears to have lost the battle on the Hudson River.  The courts have ruled in favor of the EPA-proposed dredging.  However, the conditions of the cleanup require a “review process” at each step. This could mean that GE could open up the issue at each critical stage and delay the projected five-year cleanup period indefinitely.

As Robert F. Kennedy, the Chief Prosecuting Attorney for Riverkeeper, noted, “General Electric is going to have to learn what the rest of us learned in Kindergarten: You are responsible for cleaning up your own mess.”

Just as all young people must face the tragedy that apartments are not self-cleaning, so Jack Welch must admit the Hudson River will not remedy itself of contamination.  The fish do not know to remain in the contaminated pools.  The birds will not refrain from eating PCB-laden minnows and insects.

Nature will not break down a stable man-made chemical such as PCBs; we must do it.


  1. Peter Montague.  “Rachel’s Environmental & Health News, #329.  How We Got Here—Part 2: Who Will Take Responsibility for PCBs,” Source 8.  March 18, 1993.
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  2., “General Electric and PCBs in the Hudson River.”
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  3., “Purchasing Public Opinion: GE’s Multi-Million Dollar Public Relations Campaign.”
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  4. Ann Rychlenski and Corey Brown.  “EPA Proposes Comprehensive Plan to Clean Up Hudson River PCBs: Proposal Based on Scientific Study of PCB Risks to People and Wildlife.”  EPA Press Release, Dec. 6, 2000.
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  5. Monsanto Material Safety, 1988.
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  7. ATSDR Toxicology Profile, November 2000, 275, 279, my comments in brackets.
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  8. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 41, 739-741.
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  9. Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Case No. 1336-36-3.
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  10. Susan L. Schantz et. al. “Impairments of Memory and Learning in Older Adults Exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls Via Consumption of Great Lakes Fish.”  Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 109, No. 6, June 2001.
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  11. Monsanto Chemical Company.  “Material Safety Data: Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).”  October, 1988.
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  12. ATSDR Toxicology Profile, November 2000, 275.
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  13. ATSDR et. al., “Public Health Implications of Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).”  November 2000, 1-2.
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  14. ATSDR Toxicology Profile, November 2000, 28.
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  15. Rachel’s Environmental & Health News #329.  Source 5.  March 18, 1993.
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Marlaine Browning is in the MFA program for creative writing at Indiana University in Bloomington.  This article in the first of a 3-part set of research papers outlining the environmental and health effects of PCBs. For more information, please contact her at

ATC 99, July-August 2002