An Industrial Poison Lingers On...and On
PCB: We May Never Get Rid of It
by Hugh Grambau
It's in fish and chickens and cows. It's in fluorescent light fixtures, envelopes, and forklift trucks. And if you've been drinking the water and breathing the air, it's probably in you.
It's one of those versatile synthetic hydrocarbons, like plastic and DDT. This one is called polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB for short.
Because of PCB, you can't buy Coho salmon at the grocery store, and fishermen are advised not to eat it more than once a week. The success of Michigan's effort to restock the lakes with game fish is threatened. And workers in faclories here and elsewhere may be showing signs of Yusho disease - PCB poisoning.
We've known PCB was harmful for 40 years, but we're just getting around to banning it.
Chester Georgic, a retired operating engineer,used to take care of a boiler-heater system for melting resins at the. Inmont Paint Corporation plant on Milford (near Livernois and Warren) in Detroit.
The heater, like many others in the auto plants around the city, operated much like a home hot-water heating system - except that instead of circulating water, it circulated a clear, smooth-flowing liquid with the consistency of thin oil called Aroclor.
Aroclor is the trade name that Monsanto Chemical Corporation gave to PCB, which was first produced in 1929 and found many trial applications during and after the second World War, due to its chemical and thermal stability, non-flammability, and non-conductivity.
Georgic worked on the heater from May 1958 until he left work in January 1971, suffering from a back injury, a persistent skin condition, and a feeling of weakness and lethargy.
His responsibilities on the job included drawing samples of Aroclor out of the system into a bucket to test the viscosity about once a month. He wore no protective mask and inhaled whatever fumes blew his way. On other occasions, when he would have to add more Aroclor to the theoretically "closed" system,
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DNR Leads Fight to Ban Hazardous Chemical
PCB Is Everywhere . . .
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Aroclor would inevitably drip onto the boiler-room floor and sometimes onto Georgic's boots or clothing.
Georgic worked on the heater from May 1958 until he left work in January 1971 , suffering from a back injury, a persistent skin condition,and a feeling of weakness and lethargy.
His responsibilities on the job included drawing samples of Aroclor out of the system into a bucket to test the viscosity about once a month. He wore no protective mask and inhaled whatever fumes blew his way. On other occasions, when he would have to add more Aroclor to the theoretically "closed" system, Aroclor would inevitably drip onto the boiler-room floor and sometimes onto Georgic's boots or clothing.
Today, more than five years after he stopped working, Georgic suffers from stomach problems, a goosebump-like rash on his back, intermittent red spots on his arms, breathing difficulties, and feelings of weakness.
Although not exactly the same, these symptoms are remarkably like those experienced by more than 1,000 Japanese who ate rice oil contaminated with PCB (from a heater similar to the one at Inmont). The symptoms were collectively called "Yusho (oil) disease."
If Georgic does have Yusho disease, he is probably not alone. Last slimmer General Electric admitted that over the last fifteen years, 49 employees at its plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York had reported cases of allergic skin rash, diagnosed as being caused by contact with PCB.
In fact, a severe skin disease called chloracne was known to attack workers in the very first plants that made PCBs in the early 1930's. In Detroit and southern Michigan, PCB heating and hydraulic systerns have been used extensively in the auto industry by General Motors, Ford, U.S. Rubber, and many others. In March 1972, in response to the growing concern of federal and state officials, Ford and GM adopted a policy of eliminating PCB from their faecories. Inmont switched to a non-PCB fluid in 1972 after the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) identified the plant on Milford as one of six major sources of PCB reaching the Detroit sewage treatment plant at Jefferson and the Rouge River.
But PCBs have grown beyond the stage of posing a threat to the health of workers, to the point where they have become a threat to the entire environment and to the health of people on the street.
PCBs are everywhere. And they just don't go away. The very stability which made them so attractive for heavy industrial purposes makes them very unattractive in the environment.
PCB biodegrades even more slowly than DDT, another synthetic chlorinated hydrocarbon. To destroy PCB, you must incinérate it at temperatures up to 2700 degrees F.
PCB has been used as a plasticizer in literally hundreds of products - paints, ironing board covers, waterproof canvas, wire coatings, printing inks, "carbonless" carbon paper, copying papers, plastics, rubber products, glue on envelopes and tapes, and sealants for joints to keep out moisture, dust, or heat.
When any of these products is discarded, the article may be destroyed by burning or rotting in a dump. But the PCBs stick around, rising as vapor into the air, leaching out into the ground water, and in the case of paper, being recycled and made into food-wrapping paper, for example.
At the height of PCB production in the U.S. in 1970, about 40 per cent was sold for use in plasticizers, heat transfer material, hydraulic fluids, and various other "open-ended" applications. The remaining 60 per cent was used in the manufacture of transformers and capacitors, the so-called "closed-ended" applications.
The difference is supposedly that leaks into the environment are less likely in a transformer or power capacitor, where the fluid just sits there, than in a system where it is pumped through leaky pipes or used as an ingredient in a product. The trouble is, because of careless disposal of electrical components containing PCB (like the black ballast condenser hiding in every fluorescent light fixture) and accidental losses from equipment and storage facilities, the stuff gets out into the environment all the time.
John Hesse, supervisor of the Toxic Materials Unit of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources, estimates that there are about 100,000 power capacitors in use in the state, mostly by electrical Utilities. "I figure one-tenth of one per cent of these capacitors explode on poles and rooftops each year," says Hesse.
Each capacitor contains two to five gallons of PCBs, so that means something like 500 gallons a year spread over soil, shrubbery, ponds, and streams from that source alone. Most liquid from salvaged capacitors is disposed of through waste haulers, who in turn get rid of the oily liquid in several ways - using it to control dust on roads, mixing it with oils as a fuel in low-temperature boilers, and treating and discharging it to local sewage systems. So the "closed-ended" systems aren't so closed after all.
Several companies are working on substitute chemicals that will meet safety standards. Until such a product is marketed, Monsanto - the only American producer - will continue to turn out about 45 million pounds of PCBs a year.
Under pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, by 1972 Monsanto "voluntarily" stopped all sales for uses other than for transformers and capacitors. This January, the company announced it would stop production completely in as little as 18 months, providing someone marketed an acceptable substitute.
Since the 1972 partial ban on sales, however, the levels of PCB in Great Lakes fish have risen.
The problem is complex and difficult, since a very small amount of PCB in the water can create a very great threat to the fish that live in it. Fish, especially the fatty varieties of trout, Coho, and Chinook found in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, sop up PCB in the water around them and concentrate it in the fatty tissues of their bodies at levels as much as 100,000 to 200,000 times greater than the surrounding water.
The purest of all the Great Lakes is Superior. PCBs in Lake Superior have been measured at less than one part per trillion. And yet lake trout have been discovered off Isle Royale which exceed the Food and Drug Administration's "safe" limit of five parts per million.
The limit was set by the FDA in 1969 after t was discovered that PCBs caused problems similar to those caused by DDT in animals and human beings. Lake trout in Lake Michigan often exceed the limit by two or three times. Millions of pounds of surplus salmon from Lake Michigan are being buried each year because of PCB.
The fish stocking programs that promised to bring back fishing in all the Great Lakes, and even the Detroit River, now appear threatened. The levéis of PCB concentrated in fish eggs are even higher than in the fish themselves.
In studies of Atlantic salmon, levels of .5 parts of PCB per million create reproductive problems. PCB levels of 2.7 parts per million in rainbow trout eggs caused high mortality rates in the newly-hatched fry. In Lake Michigan salmon eggs, PCB levels average about 10 parts per million, and DNR experts are carefully monitoring all hatcheries.
Fish-eating birds have also been adversely affected. Many Great Lakes populations have been found with high concentrations of PCBs. A pattern of reproductive failure has become clear, including high egg loss during incubation (unrelated to predators), mechanical breakage of eggs due to thin shells, and embryo and chick mortality.
The symptoms of PCB poisoning in birds -sluggishness and body tremors - are similar to those caused by DDT.
Mink ranchers who fed their animals Coho salmon from Lake Michigan containing five parts per million discovered that all reproduction was halted. When smaller quantities of the contaminated fish were used, the minks conceived, but had many stillborn kits.
In tests with Rhesus monkeys at the University of Wisconsin, females fed a diet containing 2.5 parts PCB per million suffered from swelling around the head, loss of hair, redness of the skin, and acnelike lesions on the face and neck. They also had reduced conception rates and increased menstrual bleeding. On the basis of this data, Canada lowered its "safe" limit in fish to 2 parts per million.
We don't know the effects of chronic exposure of low levels of PCBs on humans, although tests on a cross-section of the American population in 1974 revealed that 40 per cent of those tested had PCB levels above one part per million in their fatty tissues.
As in several other environmental disasters, Japan has provided the only large sample of human guinea pigs outside the factories. During the 1968 Yusho poisoning episode, eleven of the poisoned women and two wives of victims had ten live-born and two still-born babies. Nine of the babies had unusually grayish skin with dark brown stains, and five had darkly-pigmented gums and nails as well. All showed increased eye discharge.
Humans can take PCBs into their bodies through digestion, inhalation, and absorption through the skin and mucus membranes. PCBs are present in our drinking water and sometimes contaminate food other than fish. In 1970, the FDA traced milk contamination in Ohio, Georgia, and Florida to the use of a PCB-containing sealant in grain silos. A similar incident occurred in Michigan last year, when 76 dairy herds were found to be contaminated.
Factory workers directly exposed to PCB compounds can also expose wives and children. In 1933, it wasn't uncommon for whole families to get chloracne when the father worked in a PCB plant. In a recent study of vacuum cleaner sweepings from the home of a worker exposed to PCBs on the job, researchers found 180 parts per million, a very high level.
We also breathe in PCBs. Considerable quantities enter the atmosphere from refuse dumps, where PCB-containing papers and products are often burned. Samples of snow in Wisconsin showed PCB levéis greater than those of any stream flowing into Lake Michigan. The EPA has estimated that 80 per cent of the PCBs entering Lake Michigan in a given year came from the atmosphere.
Disposal of PCBs presents a big problem: there simply aren't enough adequately-equipped incinerators. Monsanto will handle pure PCB liquid for a price, but can't dispose of any solid waste, like sawdust from factory floors or contaminated soil or brush.
The only other alternative is sealed landfills with no possibility of PCBs teaching the ground water- which, in turn, creates another occupational health hazard. A study of refuse workers showed that 81 per cent had PCBs in their blood plasma, as compared to only 11 per cent of a control group.
PCBs are going to keep entering the environment for years, even when production and use in new products is finally discontinued. They are sticky. A 1972 Japanese study shows that PCBs adhere to the fingers of persons handling "carbonless" carbon papers, and does not readily wash off. In factories, even with repeated flushings, measurable (if much reduced) levels of PCBs are entering the sewers and streams from heaters and hydraulic systems that have long since stopped using PCB fluids. The same problem will plague the power industry when some new fluid replaces PCBs in transformers and capacitors. Old stocks of papers, paints, and other PCB-containing products may not run out for decades.
When PCBs go down a drain in a factory , they are not eliminated from the environment by sewage treatment. Secondary treatment removes about 50 per cent from
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the water that enters rivers and lakes, tertiary treatment about 66 per cent. What is removed from the water goes into sewer sludge, which is commonly disposed of by incineration (not necessarily at temperatures high enough to destroy PCBs), spreading on agricultural land, or dumping in landfills. At present, there is no way of getting rid of contaminated waste water that does not put PCBs back into the environment.
There is one bright spot, though: the government of Canada and the Province of Ontario, working with a Canadian cement company, have pioneered a process of incinerating PCB in cement kilns. Peerless Cement and the DNR are having informal discussions about such a setup in Michigan; this would provide nearby disposal services, which do not now exist.
The Michigan Senate passed a bill last week that would ban all "open-ended" uses of PCBs here. Continued use and sale for transformers and capacitors would be allowed until the Director of the DNR rules that an acceptable substitute is available. The bill also includes labeling, reporting, and disposal requirements for continued use. The bill is expected to pass the House easily and be signed into law by Governor Milliken shortly.
Up until now, there have been no restrictions whatsoever on the use of PCBs in Michigan.
The other Great Lakes states are working on similar legislation. The states, led by Michigan, are clearly putting pressure on the federal government, which alone can act effectively to end the national PCB crisis. But the Toxic Substances Act, which would empower the EPA to take control of the situation, is currently languishing in Congress.
Barry Commoner, the noted environmentalist, has pointed out that although environmental problems are usually an extension of occupational health problems, nothing much is done about it until fish or birds start dying from the residues of substances that workers handle every day. In the case of PCBs, he points out that by the end of World War II, the dangers and the need for strict controls were well established from workers' experience. Yet no concern was expressed or research begun until 1966, when a Swedish scientist found PCBs in Baltic fish and birds.
Just who is responsible for the health of working people - the employer, the government, the labor union? Had somebody paid more attention to workers' ongoing job-related health problems, PCBs might never have been allowed to permeate our environment.
These days, when doctors are discovering an epidemic of environmentally caused cancer, we can no longer afford to ignore the health problems of working people. Nor can we avoid the unpleasant fact that many people, especially workers, have suffered permanent damage to their bodies and minds from toxic materials like PCBs - and a thousand other things - used in factories every day. But long-term damage to one's health is seldom recognized as an occupational injury, since compensation would then have to be paid.
In the Senate version of the Michigan PCB bill, Senator Joe Mack of the Upper Peninsula, a pro-business Democrat, introduced an amendment which would require the Department of Natural Resources to tabulate the cost to industry of converting from PCBs to other materials.
But who is going to tabulate the cost of working with Aroclor to Chester Georgic and the thousands of other men and women who handled it?
Hugh Grambau, an Ann Arbor-based free-lance writer, has recently contributed articles on pollution of the Great Lakes to Lakeland Boating, a national monthly published in Ann Arbor.