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Re: E-M:/ PCB education

Enviro-Mich message from John Rebers <jrebers@nmu.edu>

Rita and others - here is a fairly good non-technical summary about PCBs,
which I found at http://clearwater.org/news/fs5.html
 (Clearwater is an environmental advocacy group focused on the Hudson
River, in NY).

Hope others don't mind a posting to the list - thought this might be of
general interest.

Fact Sheet 5
 PCBs, General Information Q & A for Nonscientists

 Q. What are PCB's?

 A.  PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a group of synthetic oil-like
 chemicals of the organochlorine family.  Until their toxic nature was
 recognized and their use was banned in the 1970's, they were widely used as
 insulation in electrical equipment, particularly transformers.  Reputable
 chemists have since concluded that "it was probably a 'mistake' ever to
make or
 use PCB's".

 Q. Why are they dangerous?

 A.  They are serious poisons which have been shown to cause damage to the
 reproductive, neurological and immune systems of wildlife and humans and are
 suspected of being able to cause cancer.  Specifically, because PCB's in the
 body mimic estrogen, women of child-bearing age and their infants are
 particularly susceptible to a variety of development and reproductive
 disorders.  A National Academy of Sciences committee has stated that "PCB's
 pose the largest potential carcinogenic risk of any environmental contaminant
 for which measurements exist."

 Q. Where are they?

 A.  There are numerous known contaminated sites around the U. S.  Among the
 most dangerous of these, and of particular concern to residents of the Hudson
 Valley, are the forty "hot spots" in the Hudson River resulting from the
 dumping and leakage from General Electric plants at Fort Edward and Hudson
 Falls. There are PCBs in Hudson River water, biota, and sediment from Hudson
 Falls to New York City -- 200 miles that comprise the nation's largest
 Superfund site.

 Q. How did PCB's get into the water?

 A.  During the period when they were used, General Electric legally dumped
 1.5 million pounds of PCB's into the Hudson River, and unknowingly saturated
 the bedrock beneath both sites with at least that much again.  Pure PCBs are
 oozing out of the bedock to this day, making any cleanup an impossibility.

 Q. Isn't this just a local problem?

 A.  No.  Once bottom-dwelling organisms absorb the material it is passed
 up the food chain.  Insoluble in water, PCB's are not readily excreted and
 remain, in ever-increasing concentrations, lodged in the fatty body
tissues of
 fish as they grow.  As one consequence, a once-thriving commercial fishing
 industry in the Hudson Valley, earning about $40 million annually, is now all
 but dead.  Almost all of the river-dwelling fish are migratory, and the
 are such that the New York State Department of Health has issued an advisory
 telling people to severely limit the consumption even of fish caught
 recreationally in the Hudson.  Women of child-bearing age and children under
 fifteen are advised to eat none at all. Since subsistence fishing is
common in
 the lower reaches of the river, there are particular concerns in these areas.
 Further, unless the contaminated material is removed, there is an
 ever-increasing risk that, while remaining dangerous, it will be dispersed
 gradually, carried downstream, and thus become irrecoverable.

 Q. Can't the river clean itself, as GE claims?

 A.  GE's claims are based on laboratory tests under ideal circumstances
that do
 not exist in the river.  Yes, micro-organisms can partially convert the
 dangerous chlorine content of PCB's into non-hazardous chloride ions.
 under the natural river conditions of temperature and water flow, it is
 reliably estimated that this process would take anywhere from several hundred
 to several thousand years, even excluding the fact that seepage into the
 continues.  Further, biodegradation does not strip all the chlorine atoms off
 the PCBs, leaving thousands of tons of materials that are still potent
 endocrine disrupters and neuron-function inhibitors.

 Q.  What should be done about the PCBs?

 A.  Advanced dredging techniques exist which could remove the contaminated
 material with minimal dispersal of material into the surrounding water.  This
 has been successfully demonstrated in clean-ups around the country.
 on shore in a prepared

 location, the material could then be concentrated and treated
biochemically or
 preferably thermochemically under controlled conditions to break down the PCB
 molecules into non-hazardous residues.  These are established, proven

 Q.  What would this cost?

 A.  A total project cost of $280 million has been estimated.  This is less
 1/2 of one percent of GE's annual revenues!

 Q.  Why doesn't GE just do it, then?

 A.  Why don't you ask GE or your state legislator or senator, and demand
 corporate and legislative accountability?  Your letters really do make a

At 11:40 AM 7/27/97 -0400, you wrote:
>Enviro-Mich message from "R. Jack" <yukon@ismi.net>
>So I was on vacation last week, in the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula,
>specifically in Northport.  We had our boat in the water there, and so spent
>some time in the municipal marina.  In the evening, several local youngsters
>came out to fish for "craw-dads," using a pole and a worm.  I asked one
>young man (looked around 12 years old) if they actually eat those things.
>He said, "Yeah, we boil them up and eat 'em!"  I told him "That's dangerous,
>because they're full of PCB's."  (I assume this is correct, since these
>creatures crawl around on the bottem of the lake and eat from the sediment.)
>He asked "What are PCB's?"  I told him they are extremely dangerous toxic
>chemicals -  but I faltered...
>How can you explain in only a few sentences what PCB's are, and what they
>do?  I told him to get to the library, and look them up.  I wish I'd had
>some handouts with me.  (It's hard to be prepared for every question - and
>sometimes you just want to leave it all behind, especially when on vacation,
>but it - the PCB and dioxin monster, is still out there.)
>I saw tons of materials and propaganda for fisherman and sports fisherman.
>But nowhere did I see anything about fish advisories or even anything about
>how to clean the fish to remove the worst of the contamination....
>Am I naive?
>Is our governor and our state letting us all down, and letting us poison
>-Rita J.
>ENVIRO-MICH:  Internet List and Forum for Michigan Environmental
>and Conservation Issues and Michigan-based Citizen Action.
>Postings to:  enviro-mich@great-lakes.net      For info, send email to
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John Rebers
Department of Biology
1401 Presque Isle Avenues
Northern Michigan University
Marquette, MI  49855
906-227-1585 (office)
906-228-3617 (home)
906-227-2013 (FAX)
e-mail address: jrebers@nmu.edu
Note: do not send mail to jrebers@pop.mail.nmu.edu or to jrebers@VM.NMU.EDU
- these may appear in the header, but will not work for my address.  Thanks!

ENVIRO-MICH:  Internet List and Forum for Michigan Environmental
and Conservation Issues and Michigan-based Citizen Action.

Postings to:  enviro-mich@great-lakes.net      For info, send email to
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