Burlington Educators Sue Monsanto Over PCB Contamination at High School | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » News

Burlington Educators Sue Monsanto Over PCB Contamination at High School


Published October 10, 2022 at 3:58 p.m.

Outside Burlington High School - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Outside Burlington High School
Updated at 5:15 p.m.

Two former Burlington High School educators have sued the chemical maker Monsanto after suffering physical ailments they claim are linked to their workplace exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a toxic chemical that’s been found throughout the school's former campus in the city’s New North End.

Filed in federal district court in Vermont last week, the 36-page suit alleges special education teacher Tracy Rubman “suffered a multitude of reproductive issues” since she started working at BHS in 2016, including two premature births; two miscarriages, including one of twins; and a fetus that developed a serious condition that is often fatal, leading to an abortion at 16 weeks of pregnancy. After the abortion, Rubman “required medical intervention to stop her hemorrhaging,” the suit says.

In August 2020, Rubman was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, which can affect the body’s metabolism. She left the district in June 2022. Her husband, James Ellery Baker, is also a plaintiff.

Another former employee, Kathy Lothian, who worked as a special education paraeducator at BHS from 2015 through 2020, “has suffered and continues to suffer from severe personal injuries, including cognitive issues” such as “memory loss, confusion, and brain fog,” the suit says.

High levels of airborne PCBs were discovered in BHS during testing in summer 2020 ahead of a planned $70 million renovation. The chemicals, which “have no taste or smell and range in consistency from an oil to a waxy solid,” are often found in caulking, tile glue and light ballasts.
The discovery in Burlington led the district to close the school, move the students to a new location and ultimately vote to demolish the buildings. The district hopes to build a new school, which is contingent on Burlington voters approving a $165 million bond on Election Day in November.

The discovery also led the Vermont legislature to require airborne PCB testing in some 350 schools that were built before 1980, around the time the U.S. banned the use of the chemicals. That testing program has gotten off to a rocky start.

Both Rubman and Lothian worked in Building F, which registered the highest levels of PCBs during testing at BHS in 2020. The suit cites research that indicates PCBs are a probable human carcinogen “suspected of causing birth defects, miscarriages and cancer,” as well as endocrine issues and neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
Monsanto, the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the U.S. for commercial use from 1929 to 1977, was aware of the chemicals’ health effects decades ago, yet it disregarded the research, continued producing PCBs, and “chose not to warn its customers and the public” in order to protect its own profits, the suit charges.

“Monsanto’s PCBs have contaminated schools in Vermont, including BHS, causing harm to the children, students, teachers, staff members, contractors, occupants, and others of the school, including the Plaintiffs,” the suit says.

In recent years, Monsanto has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in trial verdicts related to PCB contamination in buildings and groundwater. More than 200 teachers, their spouses and students have won payouts after alleging “neurological and physical injuries caused by exposure to PCBs within schools” in Washington State, the suit notes.
The State of New Jersey has sued the company, as has Marin County, Calif. In February, the State of New Hampshire reached a $25 million settlement with Monsanto related to PCB contamination of 104 water bodies in the state.

Monsanto is owned by pharmaceutical and biotech giant Bayer AG, which paid $66 billion for the company in 2018. Bayer and several subsidiaries are named as defendants in the Vermont suit.

The suit seeks damages, medical expenses, and attorneys’ fees and costs. The plaintiffs are represented by Burlington attorney E. William Leckerling of Lisman Leckerling, and two out-of-state co-counsels who are prominent in products liability cases: W. Wylie Blair in St. Louis, Mo., and T. Roe Frazer II of Nashville, Tenn.

Leckerling declined to comment. In a statement, a Bayer spokesperson said the "allegations in this case lack merit and the company will respond to the complaint in court in due course.

"The former Monsanto company voluntarily stopped producing PCBs 45 years ago and its conduct has been appropriate at all times," the statement reads. "Until the company terminated their production, PCBs were lawfully used in a number of commercial products that were manufactured by other companies."

Read the full suit below: