Back in 1979, the U.S. government banned Polychlorinated Biphenyls [PCBs] after adverse health effects, including cancer, heart disease, and adrenal and thyroid problems, were linked to the chemical compound. Three-and-a-half decades later it turns out that PCBs are even worse than scientists initially thought, lingering in air, water, and soil and continuing to pollute the environment.
Since PCBs don’t degrade naturally, scientists have concluded that they can persist for decades and accumulate in human and animal tissue. Worse, the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment, a four-year survey conducted by the National Institutes for Health—study results were published in Environmental Health Perspectives in late 2012—has conclusively tied them to infertility.
Dr. Peter deFur is an environmental consultant and president of Environmental Stewardship Concepts LLC, a Richmond, Virginia company that assists community groups, government agencies, and businesses with environmental clean-up. He notes that, “every state has a PCB contamination problem from a river, an old Superfund site, or buildings that were constructed before the PCB ban went into effect. Most of us carry some body burden of these chemicals, substances that we now know impact pregnancy as well as the brain growth and development of fetuses and children.”
According to the National Institutes for Health, between 20 and 37 percent of women under the age of 30 become pregnant within three months of trying to conceive. If, however, a year goes by and pregnancy does not occur—or the woman has miscarried at least twice—the couple is classified as having a fertility problem. Approximately 15 percent of those trying to reproduce fall into this category. Experts state that there are many possible reasons for this—from endometriosis or polycystic ovaries in women to low sperm count in men—nonetheless, the discovery that PCBs contribute to infertility was a startling revelation since the toxin is so ubiquitous.
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DeFur reports that hundreds of rivers throughout the U.S. are polluted by PCBs and quickly rattles off a roster of waterways that need prompt or continued attention: The Housatonic, Hudson, James, Neuse, Potomac, and Saginaw, among them. At the same time, he cautions that launching a clean-up effort is not as simple as it sounds. “PCBs can be moved into the air by activity of the sun—warming them—or stirring them up during dredging,” he says. “This means that the people doing the clean-up always need to be sure to take measures, including regular checks of air quality, so that human and animal exposure is not increased.”
Waterways, deFur continues, are just one source of PCB contamination. From the early 1950s until 1979, he continues, PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in electrical transformers and as non-flammable insulators. They were also used in oil-based paint, caulking, plastic, floor finishes, adhesives, and in the ballasts of fluorescent light fixtures.
Yes, those hated fluorescent lights that we continually sit underneath might, in fact, be poisoning us. In New York City alone, fixtures containing PCBs have been found in 772 public schools, all of them constructed between 1950 and 1978. When news of this incipient crisis broke, everyone—from the City’s Department of Education, to the teacher’s union and parent groups—agreed on the necessity of cleaning affected sites as quickly as possible. The issue, however, has been cost, projected at $380 million, as well as timing. For example, do you close a school completely for however long the removal takes, work exclusively during the summer months, or clear only those ballasts showing visible signs of crumbling or erosion?
The Lederle Graduate Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, a facility constructed in the early 1970s, began grappling with these questions after its 900 windows were discovered to be contaminated by PCB-laden caulking. Administrators and EPA officials formulated a plan—finalized in the Fall of 2012–that is expected to run $3.5 million. What’s more, remediation will move from one sealed-off section of the building to another and is expected to take 15 years.
And what of the U.S. as a whole, you ask? The EPA estimates that cleaning PCBs from every contaminated building in the 50 states will cost between $150 and $200 billion. It’s a staggering sum and cash-strapped cities and towns have indicated that they will raise the money to replace tainted fixtures and windows by selling bonds.
Cleaning waterways, however, is an entirely different matter. Unlike painting or construction crews that had no idea that the supplies they were using posed a danger, most rivers were willfully poisoned by corporate polluters. “General Electric knew it was not appropriate to tell its staff to take that barrel of stuff and dump it in the Hudson River,” deFur says, and while he commends the company for funding the ongoing clean-up, he says that much more is needed to stem the rampant debasement of the nation’s lakes and rivers more generally. “Here we are in 2013,” he continues, “and our clean-up options are fairly limited because we have not put in the research to develop new methods. At the same time, we know that certain grasses and vines can be used to extract PCBs and reduce their concentration in the soil. We need to plant them. I also think that people in Research and Development at the Defense Department should be challenged to do some of this work because the military has contributed a great deal to the toxic environment.”
Still, this long-term plan offers little comfort to couples who want to have a baby and can’t. For them, chemical contamination has become the ultimate right to life concern. Needless to say, it demands the attention of politicians, activists, and all people concerned with the future of the planet.