In 1929, the Monsanto company introduced a new class of chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), substances that would revolutionize electronics. Seven years later, several workers at the Halowax Corporation in New York who worked with PCBs fell ill, and three died of severe liver failure. By the mid-1930's, officials Monsanto and General Electric (GE), which was one of the leading licensees of the technology, knew about the potential health effects of PCBs. Soon more studies linked PCB exposures to cancer, developmental problems, and damage to the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
But the corporations continued their production and use of PCBs for decades. Finally, the chemicals were banned by Congress (the only such specific chemical ban ever enacted) in 1976. By then, GE had dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, making areas of the River the country's largest "Superfund" contamination zone, threatening the health and environment for millions of New Yorkers to this day. Millions more Americans are threatened today by other failures to assess and avoid the health problems caused by chemical-dependent technologies.
Today another technology that makes use of harmful chemicals is being proposed for New York and across the country. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas is a new technique that relies on the use of hundreds of chemicals linked to serious health problems.
Though fracking companies keep their chemical use secret, a 2011 study identified more than 600 chemicals used in fracking. Many of these chemicals have never been fully assessed for health risks, but 353 were frequently cited in scientific studies. Twenty-five percent of these 353 fracking chemicals were linked to cancer and mutations; 40-50% can affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems; and more than 75% can harm the skin, eyes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.