This article was originally published in the Nov. 6, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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PRINCETON — When town officials here learned that the Thomas Prince School was contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an organic pollutant and presumed human carcinogen, they sprang into action.
The contamination was discovered in 2011 during a summer window replacement project. By summer’s end, the Wachusett Regional School District Committee had voted to transfer students in the affected part of the building to the Glenwood Elementary School in Rutland. Thomas Prince School’s then-Principal Thomas Pandiscio endorsed the action, wanting no part of any further exposure by students or staff to PCBs.
The student relocation lasted an entire school year, and cost more than $700,000, as the caulking was removed and replaced.
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But that was not the end.
Indignant at potentially exposing town residents and workers to PCBs through no fault of their own, town officials wanted payback. They decided they would go for it in the form of a lawsuit directed at the company that made virtually all of the product (98 percent, according to the lawsuit), a company that has been sued on the PCB issue many times before, a company that is well-known – the Monsanto Company.
To do so, they hired a heavy hitter in the environmental field: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who along with his partner Kevin Madonna (who both joined the national personal injury law firm of Morgan & Morgan in March) had earlier begun a potential class action on behalf of the town of Lexington.
“The town did a good job in getting that going,” said Town Administrator Nina Nazarian, who was hired in July 2015, a few days after the lawsuit was filed and who had not been with the town previously.
Kennedy’s former firm filed the suit, which asks for treble damages, on contingency. If successful, the firm would take one-third of the award. Princeton spent close to $1 million on the remediation project.
With Princeton’s population of 3,432, “that is a lot of money for any town,” said Richard Head, a New Hampshire based co-counsel in the lawsuit. “The issue of whether Monsanto is responsible for this kind of contamination is bubbling.”
It’s bubbling all over the country – in other communities in Massachusetts and in Connecticut, New York and California, among other places. One place it is not bubbling is Worcester.
The city and School Committee spent eight years blocking its teachers union from conducting tests on caulking and fluorescent light ballasts in city schools.
“We have invested a lot of money and I’m willing to invest more,” Mayor Joseph M. Petty told the Sun in late September.
The city has long taken the position that testing was not necessary. Nevertheless, in a statement released in September, Worcester Public Schools reported spending $1.2 million in the summer of 2012 for PCB remediation. And Petty has pointed to $53 million in school spending related to PCBs.
A St. Louis jury in May ordered Monsanto to pay $46.5 million in a case that alleged PCBs caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in at least three individuals.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, the Princeton lawsuit alleges that Monsanto, now known as Pharmacia Corporation, knew as early as the 1930s that PCBs were toxic, but “failed to provide adequate warnings.” It further paints a devastating picture of the company’s longstanding knowledge of the breadth and depth of the PCB toxicity through the decades.
It details Princeton’s efforts to replace windows in the school, which resulted in the discovery of PCB concentrations in window and joint caulking in excess of the 50 parts per million allowed by federal law. It further states:
“In response to these high detection levels in the building materials, indoor air samples were collected from the six classrooms for which windows were scheduled to be replaced as part of the Prince School’s window replacement project: Those indoor air samples were also found to contain concentrations of PCBs above advisory levels established by the EPA.”
It describes PCBs as odorless, tasteless; oily liquids to light solids that are colorless to light yellow in appearance; used in fluorescent light ballasts, caulk, paint, adhesives and flame retardants.
It continues: “PCBs easily migrate from building materials such as caulk to surrounding materials such as masonry, wood, drywall and soil, thereby causing damage to those surrounding materials. PCBs also degrade into lesser chlorinated types of PCBs, which happen to be more potent from a neurotoxic standpoint than higher chlorinated PCBs. Thus, the risks posed by PCBs in building materials are greater as time passes.”
The lawsuit claims that Monsanto manufactured 3 million pounds of PCB-laden material in 1957, increasing to 19 million pounds by 1969. The PCB products were profitable and the lawsuit details a number of internal Monsanto memos that appear to show the company knew it was selling a dangerous product.
In fighting back, Monsanto, among other things, alleges that the town did not file the lawsuit within a three-year statute of limitations, citing a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency press release on the dangers of PCBs. District Judge Denise Casper denied that line of defense in an Aug. 10 ruling but allowed a motion by the company that it was not in violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, as alleged.
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Between 1950 and 1978, products containing PCBs were widely used in construction and renovation of buildings, including school buildings, in the United States. PCBs were banned by Congress in 1979 and the EPA listed them in 1996 as “probable human carcinogens.” The Thomas Prince School was built in 1962.
Communities that sue Monsanto have brought the details about PCBs’ effects into the light. The Princeton suit notes: “In 2013, 26 experts from 12 countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to reassess the carcinogenicity of PCBs and based on the best available science classified them as carcinogenic to humans.
“PCBs have been demonstrated to affect the immune system by decreasing the size of the thymus gland, decreasing resistance to pneumonia and infections, and increasing the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Studies have been unable to identify a level of PCB exposure that does not cause effects on the immune system.
“The reproductive effects of PCBs include decreased birth weight and a significant decrease in gestational age with increasing exposures to PCBs.
“The neurological effects of PCBs include significant deficits in visual recognition, short-term memory, and learning. Children, like the elementary students attending the Thomas Prince School, are particularly vulnerable to these neurological effects.”
On Oct. 5, the day before the Worcester School Committee was lambasted by former Mayor Raymond V. Mariano and others for its inaction, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., released a report titled, “The ABCs of PCBs: A Toxic Threat to America’s Schools.”
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The report says up to 14 million students, some 30 percent of the nation’s school-aged population, may be exposed at present to PCBs in their schools.
A statement accompanying the report read in part, “… there are generally no requirements for schools to do testing or inspections to ensure PCB exposures aren’t happening, and … even when exposure is identified, reporting and remediation of PCB hazards are inconsistent and often ineffective.”
The statement quotes Markey saying, “In the coming months, I will be introducing legislation requiring schools to inspect and test for PCBs both now and after potential remediation projects, as well as require the notification of students, parents, teachers, and employees of potential PCB hazards in schools. I will also introduce legislation to provide federal assistance for projects to inspect for and remove PCB hazards from schools.”