Polychlorinated Biphenyls

new internationalist
issue 157 | March 1986

POLLUTION[image, unknown] The unknown chemical compound
[image, unknown]

Polychlorinated biphenyls
You might not be too familiar with them. But they are
chemicals of vital importance to the electrical industry which
have produced some nasty side-effects for the environment.

PCBs. Do the initials mean anything to you? Probably not. They stand for polychlorinated biphenyls, a chemical compound. But to thousands of Japanese in 1968, PCBs spelled tragedy.

At that time many residents of the Japanese island of Kyusha ate rice oil which had been contaminated with a chemical coolant from a leaking factory pipe. The coolant contained PCBs, a stable fire-retarding substance widely used in electrical transformers.

The afflicted Japanese developed what came to be called 'yusho' - rice oil disease. They suffered from bone deformities, jaundice, loss of memory, hair and sex drive, eye discharge, skin discolouration, respiratory infections and a host of other ailments. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study of deaths among the Japanese victims showed an abnormally high rate of cancer of the liver and stomach as well as indications that PCB poisoning may cause other cancers.

Polychlorinated biphenyls are a group of organochlorine compounds first synthesised in the 19th century. They are clear, pale yellow liquid, semi-solid or solid substances, their consistency increasing with their chlorination content. They have a mild aromatic smell.

They sound harmless enough. And indeed their stable, fire-retarding properties were good news for the electrical industry, whose products were always dogged by the risk of fire. In the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, there were several mining accidents caused by poorly insulated electric cables. But after the introduction of PCB-insulated cables, accidents decreased.

PCBs were a major breakthrough. Commercial production had begun by the US Monsanto company in 1929 and soon many industrialised countries were manufacturing them, mainly for use in electrical transformers where they are circulated inside to keep the unit cool.

Their use has contributed to our affluence by giving us safer electricity and electrical appliances. Electricity production has been increasing worldwide, going up by about 60 per cent in the years from 1970 to 1979 alone. Those PCB-filled transformers at power stations and on pylons/utility poles feed us domestic electricity in digestible form. And as our standard of living rises, we use more electricity to power the new video, spotlights, freezer and home computer.

What most consumers do not know is that there's a darker side to PCBs. As the Japanese found out, PCBs are poisonous.

In 1943 the New York State Department of Labour published a report on outbreaks of chloracne, dermatitis and deaths due to liver damage among workers handling equipment containing PCBs and similar compounds. 'Both Monsanto and the government were aware of the extremely dangerous nature of these chemicals four or five decades ago, says Lewis Regenstein, author of America the Poisoned, 'but nothing was done to restrict their use until the late 1970s.' At that time, manufacture of PCBs ceased in several countries including the US, UK and Japan, and controls on their use and safe disposal came in.

But already over one million tonnes of PCBs had been produced in the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the clan of major Western industrialised nations. For PCBs had proved so useful that they featured in a wide range of other products besides transformers. They cropped up in adhesives, paints, printing inks, fire retardants, carbonless copy paper, hydraulic fluid and a range of plastic goods, as well as in fluorescent lights. The chemical was being dispersed far and wide.

Wide dispersal of PCBs was one factor that makes disposal difficult. There's another problem too: because of their stability PCBs do not break down in the environment when we have finished with them. Along with other waste they were normally disposed of in landfills. In the landfill, the harmless-looking poison keeps its potency, unscathed by nature's attempts to break it down. In time it percolates through into the groundwater and taints the streams. Fish ingest it and since PCBs remain stable and are not excreted, the poison accumulates in the fish organs. Anyone eating the fish then builds up a store of PCBs in their own body.

'PCBs are probably present in every species of wildlife on earth,' claims oceanographer Dr George Harvey. Sadly this includes breast-fed babies. An EPA study in 1975 - 76 found that the average US breastfeeding infant was taking in 10 times the EPA's safety level. The baby's small size means that s/he receives 100 times more PCBs per body weight than an adult.

As the dangers of PCBs were more widely known, pressure mounted for them to be withdrawn from use and disposed of safely. This is easier said than done. First you have to find your PCBs.

OECD estimates that member nations had produced over one million tonnes in the period 1930 to 1980. And since PCBs are persistent, most of this tonnage would still be around, somewhere. A totting-up showed that only about half could be accounted for in transformers and similar equipment.

What of the rest? Most of it is 'free in the environment' as the OECD puts it. This means no-one is quite sure where it is - some will have been used domestically in such things as carbonless copy paper or fluorescent lights. Some will no doubt have been dumped and be on its way into the groundwater.

But wherever they end up, PCB disposal is a headache. Landfilling is clearly dangerous. Burning them in an ordinary municipal incinerators at temperatures of about 400 degrees C releases toxic dioxin into the air. High-temperature incineration (about 1000 degrees C) is currently fashionable, but it is expensive and facilities are few. There are some 181,000 tonnes of PCBs currently in use in the EEC, for instance, but disposal capacity can only cope with about 9,000 tonnes a year. Because of the difficulties and expense involved many companies with unwanted PCBs have taken the easy way out they have paid someone to take the toxic menace off their hands, no questions asked.

It's a lucrative business for the illicit 'midnight dumpers'. One enterprising truck driver simply filled his tank truck with PCB-laced oil wastes and abandoned the vehicle in a New York suburb, Obviously it paid him to lose his truck but take the dumping fee.

OECD figures show that a large amount of the unaccounted-for PCBs tonnage was exported to non-OECD countries - the Third World. As late as 1982, Italy was sending PCB-filled transformers to North Africa and the Middle East. Italy has now ceased manufacture, but France and Spain still continue to produce them. Since PCBs are no longer acceptable in the rich world, it seems likely that these PCBs are winding up in the developing countries. Attempts by the NI to find out just where today's PCBs go met with little success. The UK's Hazardous Waste Inspectorate did not know that the countries concerned were still manufacturing them. The French distributor, Prodelec, appeared helpful on the surface but it proved impossible to speak directly to anyone who could answer our enquiries. Former manufacturers Bayer and Monsanto were unable to help.

So it appears that the legacy of our affluence is likely to persist in poor countries for many years, with more incidents of contamination. In the West we have begun to deal with the problem of PCBs at official levels, spurred on by public outcry. But what is going to happen in countries where the infrastructure doesn't exist to test for PCBs poisoning, where no high temperature facilities exist to dispose of the killer compounds, and where people handling the chemical probably do not know of its toxicity? We can sit tight and wait for another Kyusha tragedy, or we can press for the manufacturers to take up the responsibility for supervising safe disposal of PCBs in countries of export. It's not enough just to clean up our own backyard.

Living cheek by jowl with toxic waste

[image, unknown] Trim at 68, with whitening hair wisping from a bun and a brooch at the lacy throat of her high-collar blouse, Verna Courtemanche suggests a schoolmarm. She has, in fact, taught mathematics in Michigan schools. Parallel lines never met in her classroom, but in the geometry of her life Verna has converged calamitously with hazardous waste. Under way at her doorstep is the clean-up of one of the nation's most threatening chemical dumps.

Verna lives outside Swartz Creek, near Detroit. For weeks last summer 50 trucks a day rumbled by her house ferrying contaminated soil from a nearby field to a landfill. To purge the field of toxic metals, used motor oil, drug and dye by-products and other industrial waste, bulldozers have scooped and scraped 120,000 tons of earth. That's just part of the pollution left by Verna's former neighbour, Charles Berlin.

In 1972 Berlin opened a hazardous waste incinerator. Often it was overloaded, smothering the countryside in acrid smoke. The corrosive murk turned convertible car tops into literal rag-tops and reddened children's faces with rash. Verne and friends harried state officials for four years before Berlin's smudge pot was permanently closed.

In 1980 Berlin declared bankruptcy. During the next three years, investigators unearthed behind his incinerator five storage tanks and the first 33,000 drums. They were bursting with waste that Berlin had been forbidden to burn, yet still allowed to haul - from chemical plants, auto factories and refineries.

Find followed find. In the grim stew of a holding pond, one million gallons of oily murk ware laced with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Until their US production ended in the late 1970s. PCBs lent durability to hydraulic fluid, to transformers and to plastics - wide use that now makes PCBs a universal and persistent waste, one that accumulates in fish and causes animal cancers.

In another pond it is believed that drums of hydrochloric acid and barrels of cyanide lurked like mines, needing only a blow for their chemicals to leak, mix and form a cloud of lethal gas. When the pond was safely dredged in 1983, Verna and the other evacuees cheered. Today they find they were given a reprieve only to serve an indeterminate sentence.

'We're prisoners,' Verna told me. 'We can't sell our homes, we're afraid to drink from our well, and out-of-town friends shy from visits. My sister-in-law won't take gifts of my raspberry jam any more'.

Copyright National Geographic


The victims of hazardous waste sites are organising in national networks like the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste and the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards. They share ideas and strategies for, in the words of one activist, 'getting the EPA off its fanny'.

During August 1985 groups from 300 dumpsites participated in Superdrive for Superfund. Four flatbed trucks started from different parts of the country to pick up samples of water and soil from Superfund site communities. The samples were transported in 55 gallon drums and delivered to Congress along with petitions containing two million signatures calling for a stronger Superfund. Some members of Congress refused to accept the samples fearing exposure to the water and soil they expect their constituents to live with every day.

These campaigners are now hardened veterans in the movement to stop toxic threats. Politicians and polluters beware.

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