PCB Congress Convenes

FAIRFIELD - While a scientific and academic battle rages over the health risks associated with exposure to Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), activists at Fairfield University on Wednesday pointed to the clusters of cancer in communities where the manufacturing material still persists as reason enough to address the situation.

"This isn't academic," said Dennis Prevost of Fort Edward, N.Y. "People are suffering in clusters."

Prevost was one of 75 delegates to the first PCBs Congress, held Wednesday and today at Fairfield University. People came from all over the country to discuss the problems their polluted communities face and to ratify a "Declaration of Independence from the PCBs." A large contingent of Connecticut activists whose work is centered on the PCB contamination in the Housatonic River attended the congress.

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection still warns against eating fish caught in the river because of PCBs.

The declaration the congress ratified calls for an investigation of the pervasiveness of PCBs in humans and the environment. It also calls on the government to mandate destruction of PCBs instead of storage and containment and that the responsible polluters pay for it.

The document was delivered to Fairfield-based General Electric's world headquarters because GE used PCBs in its manufacturing processes from 1930 to 1977, before the substance was banned.

The substance was used extensively to manufacture carbonless copy paper, asphalt roofing materials, adhesives, dyes, electromagnets, pesticides and lubricants among other things, according to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

Scientists and doctors are debating if there is a conclusive link between the substance and a long list of health problems, which includes cancer, skin diseases and neurological disorders.

Prevost said the evidence is there for scientists to pursue, but so far a real study of the issue has not taken place. As an example of what kind of evidence is available, he said five children born to four families on Putnam Street in Fort Edward contracted brain cancer. One of those affected was Prevost's brother, who died in 2000.

Fort Edward, located on the Hudson River 40 miles north of Albany, is home to a GE production facility that used PCBs for years. GE is currently working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to dredge the river where the PCBs have built up.

Prevost said there are numerous cancer clusters in Fort Edward and pockets of children who have learning disorders. He dismisses the idea that this is just coincidence and points to Anniston, Ala., a place that was home to the Monsanto Co., the only manufacturer of PCBs in the U.S. from 1929 until it they were banned.

There are children in Anniston born with lung cancer, according to David Baker, an Anniston activist. Baker also said he suffers from skin lesions and cysts and the PCB levels in his blood are 300 times the normal level.

Prevost pointed out that Anniston residents are mainly African American, while Fort Edward residents are mostly Caucasian. The only things the two communities have in common, he said, are PCB contamination and serious health problems.

GE spokesman Gary Sheffer met with the activists to accept the document outside of the corporate headquarters where activists rallied Wednesday evening.

Activists also tried to present him with a "Dirty Dozen Award" from the Connecticut Toxics Action Center. Sheffer declined to accept the award, which is given by the center each year to what it says are the 12 worst polluters in Connecticut.

Sheffer said during an earlier conversation the company respects the activists' opinions but disagrees over the conclusions they have reached about the dangers of PCBs. He said, however, that GE has spent $700 million cleaning up the sites where the company used PCBs prior to current environmental regulations. The company, according to Sheffer, will continue to honor its obligations to the communities that have issues with PCBs.

Audrey Cole, president of the Housatonic Environmental Action League, based in Cornwall Bridge, was one of the organizers of the event. She said one of the benefits of the Congress is that activists can share information.

In the past, the communities had to wage isolated battles over PCB contamination, but now they can pool their knowledge and resources.

She also said the Congress will try to establish a national and, maybe even an international, database to document the problems associated with PCBs.

Cole said she is alarmed that the only cleanup of the Housatonic River taking place is centered in Pittsfield, Mass., the site of another GE plant. Pittsfield activist Tim Gray presented the declaration to Sheffer and spoke extensively about the problems in Pittsfield during the Congress.

Dr. David Carpenter told the group that research he is conducting could create a link between PCBs and health issues such as cancer. He said he is also studying the possibility that PCBs can enter the human body through the air, something that has been dismissed in the past.

David Brown, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University and the former division head of the Connecticut DEP's epidemiological division, said in matters of public health, you can't wait for final conclusive data before acting.

If there is evidence to suggest a cause, public officials should act to avert further damage to people and the environment, according to Brown.

The PCBs Congress continues today at Fairfield University; it is open to the public and begins at 7 a.m.

Rob Varnon, who covers business, can be reached at 330-6216.