Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs

By Ted Dracos

Beacon Press, Hardcover, 9780807006122, 304pp.

Publication Date: November 9, 2010


 In 1962, Rachel Carson stunned the world with the publication of Silent Spring, exposing the lethal character of the pesticide DDT. Her work launched a global campaign against synthetic chemical toxins and veritably created a world environmental movement. But unbeknownst to Carson, an even more insidious chemical cousin to DDT had been silently poisoning the biosphere.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were first manufactured in 1920. Seen as a “magic fluid,” they were a cheap and stable heat-transfer material used as a critical coolant in big power grids. The chemical industry soon went on to develop hundreds of other uses for this highly toxic group of substances—everything from copy paper and paint to hydraulic fluids. Despite being outlawed in the U.S. since 1976, PCBs are currently found in the remotest corners of Earth and remain the most prevalent group of industrial chemical contaminants in much of the world. Every human being, from the womb to the grave, bears a body burden of these poisonous molecules forever locked in their blood and tissues.
In Biocidal, investigative journalist Ted Dracos tells the full story of PCBs for the first time, starting with the chilling chronicle of how the chemical industry manipulated regulatory agencies and scientific findings for decades to continue to reap huge profits, despite their knowledge of the threats posed by their “magic fluid.” Dracos draws on extensive research to document the connection between PCBs and catastrophic human illness, presenting the latest science as studies draw ever more disturbing links between PCBs and continued health impacts ranging from cancer and autism to immunosuppression and reproductive abnormalities.
Biocidal also explores the science behind the threat PCBs pose to Earth’s biodiversity: today, killer whales in the Puget Sound are dying, the eggs of Ontario Lake trout are doomed before they can hatch, 99 percent of the freshwater eels of Europe have disappeared, and frogs around the world are going extinct. While these disasters have many possible causes, evidence pointing to PCBs keeps accumulating, much like the toxins in these animals’ systems.
Nonetheless, Dracos leaves readers with a profound message of hope: the damage is not irreversible. In fact, cleanup efforts that involve the removal of the source of PCBs can really work, and quickly. Offering a simple blueprint for steps that can be taken to reduce the impacts of all industrial chemicals, Biocidal ultimately points the way toward a detoxified world.

About the Author

Ted Dracos (1945-2011) was a journalist in the areas of science and social policy, the author of UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and the editor/publisher of American Scholar Digital Editions. He also wrote and produced for ABC, NBC, and CBS.

Praise For Biocidal

“[A] driving, fast-paced narrative . . . Dracos’s straightforward reporting delivers one blow after another.”—Publishers Weekly

“Innately villainous and shrouded by deceit, PCBs are the cigarettes of the chemical world. Finally, with Biocidal, their treacherous story is told. And, because all of us on Earth carry molecules of PCBs within our bodies, it is a story that all of us on Earth need to hear. Happily, Ted Dracos makes listening to PCBs a captivating task.”—Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment  
“The first ever complete and up-to-date story of PCBs and their effects on human health and the ecosystem.”—Dr. David Carpenter, Director, Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany
“Dracos tells the well-documented tale from its beginning, filling in the details of how we have all been reduced to playing the role of lab rats in an awful toxicity experiment created by Monsanto, which made more than 99 percent of all of the PCBs ever used in the United States. The story has many players, including not only Monsanto, but also Monsanto’s biggest customers — polluters that include General Electric and Westinghouse – complicit scientists working on behalf of industry, and co-opted officials in government agencies. Although Dracos spins a non-fictional horror story dotted with dozens of bad decisions made over the course of decades, he also manages to end the book with a hopeful message for change.”—Steven Jensen Blog
“This book is a game changer with respect to the world of PCBs.”—Katie Noble, KPCW’s This Green Earth
“Details how the chemical industry manipulated regulatory agencies despite knowledge of the dangers of PCBs. The author synthesizes research on the connection between PCBs and human illness, environmental damage, and damage to species diversity, drawing on scientific studies, news articles, and court documents.”—SciTech Book News
“Dracos’ writing is accessible and intelligent…Such skilled writing and his talents as an investigative reporter allow Dracos a certain panache to telling the story of Monsanto, the EPA and independent researchers uncovering the true danger.”—Dotrad blog