Some 20,000 current and former residents of Anniston are suing Monsanto, the manufacturer of polychlorinated biphenyl's (PCBs), which were made in the town from 1929 to 1971.
The chemical was banned in 1979, but PCBs can be still found in Anniston's air, water, soil, wildlife and in the residents themselves, many of whom say it contributed to their illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Monsanto knew PCBs could be dangerous in 1938, when company documents reveal that rats exposed to the chemicals developed liver damage.
This irks resident Donald Stewart, a former U.S. senator and the lawyer representing 3,500 residents in one of the lawsuits.
The residents of Anniston, he explains, "are not the wealthiest people in the world, so they fish a lot….They consumed these fish that were filled with PCBs. (They) raised poultry,…hogs and at no point did the company ever inform the people in the community about the problems they were facing."
Monsanto had been urging employees to wear protective gear when working with the chemical since the 1950s, but never alerted the town. Residents found out in 1993, when a fisherman caught a badly deformed fish and sent it to a lab for analysis.
Besides the illnesses, Anniston is unique in another way, says resident David Baker: "Our children have to play in the streets, on the sidewalks, because they can't play in the grass because it's contaminated. We have to wear masks if we cut our grass. Where else in the United States of America (are) people doing that?"
Some parts of town are so badly contaminated that residents have been told not to grow vegetables, kick up dirt, eat or smoke in their yards.
Monsanto sold off its chemical business in 1997, and the new company is called Solutia. Its CEO, John Hunter, says the company is now trying to do the right thing.
"Do I wish that things might have been done differently…than they were? Sure I do," he tells Kroft. "We're committed to cleaning up the PCBs."
Hunter says Solutia has spent more than $50 million on its cleanup and that Anniston residents are no longer being exposed to "significant" levels of PCBs.
"We've sampled 1,000 residential properties and only 24 of those are required for immediate action," says Hunter.
While Solutia tries to clean up the land, residents who can rattle off their PCB levels like their ages remain contaminated.
"There's absolute definitive evidence that (PCBs) cause cancer in animals…(and) evidence in humans consistent with the conclusion that they cause cancer," says Dr. David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health and an expert on PCBs, who has studied Anniston.
"In my judgment…this is the most contaminated site in the U.S.," he tells Kroft.