GE's Hudson River Misinformation Campaign: Who Will Tell the Fish? Against the Current)

Mike Friedman mikedf at
Sat Sep 21 11:07:10 MDT 2002

GE's Hudson River Misinformation Campaign

Who Will Tell the Fish?

by 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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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.



Peter Montague.  "Rachel's Environmental & Health News, #329.  How We Got 
Here—Part 2: Who Will Take Responsibility for PCBs," Source 8.  March 18, 
? Back to text, "General Electric and PCBs in the Hudson River."
? Back to text, "Purchasing Public Opinion: GE's Multi-Million Dollar 
Public Relations Campaign."
? Back to text

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.
? Back to text

Monsanto Material Safety, 1988.
? Back to text
? Back to text

ATSDR Toxicology Profile, November 2000, 275, 279, my comments in brackets.
? Back to text

Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 41, 739-741.
? Back to text

Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Case No.  1336-36-3.
? Back to text

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.
? Back to text

Monsanto Chemical Company.  "Material Safety Data: Polychlorinated 
Biphenyls (PCBs)."  October, 1988.
? Back to text

ATSDR Toxicology Profile, November 2000, 275.
? Back to text

ATSDR et. al., "Public Health Implications of Exposure to Polychlorinated 
Biphenyls (PCBs)."  November 2000, 1-2.
? Back to text

ATSDR Toxicology Profile, November 2000, 28.
? Back to text

Rachel's Environmental & Health News #329.  Source 5.  March 18, 1993.
? Back to text

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 marlbrow at 

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