How PCB contamination lawsuits in Washington could affect plaintiffs in Vermont

Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 6:14 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As the Burlington School District and two former BHS teachers seek to sue PCB manufacturer Monsanto in new federal lawsuits, similar cases are unfolding on the other side of the country. And those lawsuits could help the plaintiffs in Vermont win their case.

Monday, a Washington state law firm went to trial for its sixth of 21 lawsuits alleging students and parents at a local school suffered brain injuries from exposure to PCBs, and the PCB manufacturer Monsanto is to blame.

“The hard part about these cases is that people don’t want to believe it’s true. No one wants to believe that we’re sending a third of America’s school children to schools where they’re getting poisoned every day, but that is the fact, that is the truth,” said lawyer Richard Friedman with the Washington state-based firm Friedman Rubin, which is the lead counsel on each of the 21 lawsuits.

It’s a truth on which Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., sounded the alarm six years ago when he issued a report called “The ABC’s of PCBs: A Toxic Threat to America’s Schools.” But the disturbing details that the report revealed have largely flown under the radar, Friedman says.

“There are not a lot of medical people with knowledge about PCB poisoning. Monsanto has done a beautiful job of keeping all of that suppressed,” he said. That is, until now. “It’s a sad fact of American life that sometimes only big jury verdicts get anybody’s attention.”

Friedman’s firm was tasked with proving that more than 200 students, parents, and teachers from a Monroe, Washington, public school were poisoned by PCBs, convincing juries of the correlation between severe illnesses, especially cognitive defects, and the toxic chemical.

“How do you say that’s related to PCBs versus somebody’s just got the flu or somebody has a skin condition -- is that because their immune system is unable to fight that skin rash or is it -- because they would have had this anyways. So, that’s where the fight is -- with Monsanto trying to attribute all of these symptoms of PCB poisoning to other things,” Friedman said.

Of the five cases that have concluded so far, Friedman and his plaintiffs have won four, with juries awarding nearly half a billion in compensatory and punitive damages. His weapon in the courtroom -- a team of the world’s leading PCB researchers.

“It takes a long time for even the scientific community -- to say anything of the public and the governmental communities -- to understand scientific research,” said Dr. David Carpenter, director of the University of Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment, who has testified as an expert witness for Friedman.

Carpenter has been studying the detrimental effects of PCBs on human health since the 1980s, conducting animal and human studies that he says have demonstrated the link between PCBs and sickness -- most clearly cognitive issues. While PCB research is still limited in scope, he says it isn’t new. He says his studies were published in scientific journals decades ago and that only now the public is catching up.

“One thing that has really helped here has been the legal cases -- because the magnitude of the awards these juries are giving the students and the teachers has gotten people to pay attention to some of the research I did back in 2005,” Carpenter said.

Monsanto has denied culpability in Washington state cases and has said it plans to appeal each decision.

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