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New Anniston study shows possible link between PCBs and liver disease

Exposure to the chemical compound commonly called PCBs might have caused a type of liver disease in the West Anniston community, according to a new federal study.

The preliminary results of the two-year study, published this week by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, shows higher rates of fatty liver disease in the West Anniston community than the general U.S. population. The results also corroborate a link between PCBs and diabetes revealed in an earlier Anniston study and show that some residents still have above-normal rates of the chemical in their blood.

According to the study, the rate of liver injury in West Anniston residents tested was more than 60 percent, compared to the estimated 24.3 percent rate in the U.S. general population.

“That’s correct, the research showed a connection between PCBs and liver disease,” said Dr. Marian Pavuk, senior epidemiologist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and a researcher for the study.

The former Monsanto Company plant in Anniston leaked PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — for 40 years into the city’s air, ground and water. The chemical was used as a coolant in electrical components.

Pavuk said researchers tested for fatty liver disease, which involves accumulation of fat and inflammation of the organ. Liver failure or cancer may result from chronic liver inflammation, the study states.

Pavuk noted that the study didn't test for other types of liver disease, such as cancer. Pavuk added that a full diagnosis of patients was needed to truly confirm cases of liver disease.

Researchers analyzed blood samples and health information in 2013 from 738 Anniston residents and again in 2014 from 352 of those same residents for the study. All of those residents were among the 766 people who participated in earlier research conducted between 2005-07 in Anniston.

The earlier study found that participants had concentrations of PCBs in their systems two to three times higher than in the general U.S. population. The study also showed an association between higher PCB levels and diabetes and high blood pressure.

The latest study again showed a connection between PCBs and diabetes, but to a lesser extent than before, Pavuk said.

“That may be expected as the population ages,” Pavuk said. “More people already have diabetes and as people get older, they develop it.”

Pavuk said the new study also showed that while the level of PCBs in the blood of test subjects had dropped between 2007 and 2014, it was still above that of the general population.

Brenda Crook lived much of her life in a house a block from the former Monsanto plant.

Then she got sick.

“I never drank and I never smoked,” Crook said. “But I got cancer.”

Doctors confirmed her blood had high levels of PCBs.

“I did radiation and three surgeries,” Crook said of her cancer. “Now I also have gout, high blood pressure and diabetes.”

Crook said she struggles to cover all the co-pays for health care each month.

David Baker, an Anniston resident and chairman of Community Against Pollution, said he wasn’t surprised by the latest study results. With the help of Baker and his organization, area residents successfully sued Monsanto over their health problems from PCB contamination for a multi-million-dollar settlement.  

“There were several people that had problems with their liver back in the day ... some have died,” Baker said of PCB-contaminated residents. “What I’m hearing in the community now is people go to the hospital a lot ... the health effects have really trickled down here through folks. It hasn't really stopped.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.