Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The salty dumping grounds: plasticized Part II

[Here is the second part of The Dumping Grounds, a history of ocean plastics.]

An Earlier Voyage

In 1971 over twenty years before the Alguita’s first voyage, nearly forty years before the recent Scripps voyage into the Gyre and roughly twenty years after his own voyage across the Pacific in Kon-Tiki, anthropologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl with a small international crew made his way across the Atlantic aboard the Ra I, a papyrus raft-vessel constructed as a modern day experiment using ancient technology. On that first voyage, as Ra made its way from across the Atlantic from Morocco to just east of Barbados, Heyerdahl, commenting on the preponderance of oil-clots and other flotsam wrote “pollution observations were forced upon all expedition members by its grave nature…” [1]

Encouraged by interest in their findings by members of United Nations, Heyerdahl set off in the Ra II a year later prepared to record observations, and to collect samples. With oil lumps washing aboard at one point, the Ra II’s log reported that “the pollution is terrible.” A couple of days later, after encountering a plastic bottle, some rope, a can and other items, a log entry expressed shock at the degree to which remote regions of the Atlantic had become polluted by man. From the day of departure, wrote Heyerdahl, to the day they landed in Barbados, the Ra II was accompanied not only by lumps of oil, but also by plastic containers, metal cans and glass bottles. In closing wrote Heyerdahl,

“The present report has no other object than to call attention to the alarming fact that the Atlantic Ocean is becoming seriously polluted and that a continued indiscriminate use of the world’s oceans as an international dumping ground for imperishable human refuse may have irreparable effects on the productivity and very survival of plant and animal species.”

Plastics Overboard!

Years before Heyerdahl’s journey, Stephen Rothstein, then a University of California biologist, had discovered small plastic particles in the stomachs of Leach’s Petrels and nestlings captured on Gull Island, Newfoundland in 1964. Wondering why the petrels might ingest plastics, Rothstein wrote, “Before the occurrence of plastic particles, it is probable that nearly all such objects were edible. Thus, natural selection would not have favored petrels which avoided nonedible floating objects…[2] It seems this was the case with other marine creatures as well, as researchers throughout the early 1970’s and ‘80s cataloged the impacts of plastics on marine mammals, birds, turtles and fish. While plastic fishing nets, ropes and packing bands ensnared Neptune’s creatures, small bits substituted for food. Seabirds mistook plastic bits for prey, inadvertently feeding them to their young, as green sea turtles gobbled down plastic banana bags tossed off the side of a dock. Wrote David Laist, then senior policy and program analyst at the Marine Mammal Commission, in his testimony at the 1986 hearing on Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, “Animals which become entangled may exhaust themselves and drown, be slowed to the point of becoming easy prey for other predators, or unable to catch fast moving prey, or develop wounds and infections from abrasion of attached debris. Animals which ingest plastics may be poisoned or have digestive tracts blocked or damaged by plastics that are difficult or impossible to excrete, regurgitate, break down, or otherwise eliminate once ingested.[3] As a 1970’s teenager, the “Keep America Beautiful” decade, it’s hard to forget the heart rending photos of fur seals girdled by discarded plastic strapping, or young turtles and seabirds caught up in six-pack rings. By some accounts, a 1988 cleanup along a 1.8 mile stretch of the Texas coast turned up almost 16,000 six-pack rings[4]. I have a vague recollection of pulling six-pack rings from my parent’s trash after chastising them for carelessly throwing them away without first slashing them apart. There was growing concern that endangered marine mammals and sea turtles alike were adversely impacted by their encounters with plastic waste, the likes of which the Alguita had stumbled upon in the North Pacific gyre. Only the hearing to prevent plastic pollution took place ten years earlier.

One of the first suggestions proposed by Laist to improve the situation was ratification and implementation of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships or MARPOL Annex V, introduced through the International Maritime Organization by the United States and other countries. MARPOL is the main international convention dealing with release of pollutants by ships. Before MARPOL, there was OILPOL, an international convention adopted to prevent ships from releasing waste oil, back in the 1950’s, strengthened over the years to include releases of oily bilge water and toxic chemicals. Not until 30 years later, as plastic lines and nets became integral to the fishing industry, and plastic strapping and packaging of food items and other consumables became common aboard all sea-going vessels from the merchant marines to the world’s Navy’s did the international community recognize the need to control the release of plastics from ships as well. Ratification of MARPOL Annex V would ban the dumping of plastics into the ocean from all vessels, in all locations. There is some unintended logic to the progression from the early OILPOL to MARPOL’s Annex V, for oil is the precursor to our modern day plastics.

The Marine Mammal Commission wasn’t alone in calling for the ratification of annex V. MARPOL’s annex V was supported by a rare combination of organizations and federal agencies, including those normally in opposition such as the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Society of Plastics Industry. In his testimony in favor of ratification at the Plastic Pollution hearing, C.E. O’Connell, sounded much like today’s National Rifle Association’s dictum that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” when he essentially stated that the plastics industry did not pollute the world’s oceans, plastics users, including beachgoers, municipalities and the marine, naval and fishing industry did[5]. And they did - legally. Back in 1982, when the merchant marine fleet registered around 71,000 ships, and plastics had worked their way on board in every conceivable role, from the packaging galley food to plastic strapping, it was estimated that some 639,000 plastic containers were tossed daily[6]. And that estimate didn’t even include all the plastics tossed overboard by navy ships, luxury cruise ships, like the QE2, which serve as a luxury playground for nearly 10 million Americans each year, or the tons of plastic fishing nets and gear lost to the sea.

I inadvertently contributed my share back in 1989. After collecting winter flounder from the Narrow River, a seemingly clean river that cut through Narragansett, RI on its way to the bay, and finding them distressingly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls I was eager to collect winter flounder untainted by coastal contaminants. As it turned out, EPA’s ocean survey vessel the Anderson, a converted Vietnam era Naval Patrol gunner, had a few unscheduled days that fall. We booked four days at sea, hired Mike the Rebel fisherman (he kept a confederate flag in the rear window of his truck, had long blond hair and a good sized tattoo on his bicep) and headed 130 miles offshore to Georges Bank to trawl for flounder. When the Anderson nearly jerked to a halt mid-tow, and the winches spun a little too easily, the loss of our net, along with the heavy metal doors that dragged along the oceans bottom became all too clear. We had just made our contribution to the hundreds of miles of ghost fishing nets drifting about or laying upon the ocean floor. Though I never would have tossed my Styrofoam coffee cup overboard, the episode didn’t register as an environmental catastrophe. The ocean was big and the net was gone. “It happens,” was all Mike had to say, that was why we brought a spare.

The thousands of lost fishing nets and lines are only part of the ocean’s plastic problem. Like early twentieth century coastal cities, merchant marines, cruise ships, navy vessels and fishing boats have looked to the sea for disposal. And why not? Aircraft carriers with crews of 6,000 sailors generate over 3 million pounds of trash during their six months at sea[7]. By some estimates, plastics, before any major efforts by the navy to reduce plastic waste, accounted for over 12 % of all waste generated on board[8]. That means over 300,000 pounds of plastics dumped in a six month period by a single vessel, in just one of the world’s navies. Up until 1988, the Navy estimated it contributed more than 4.5 million pounds of plastic to the world’s oceans[9] [insert volume analogy, e.g. # of coke bottles]. For far too many years it was common practice to dump trash directly overboard.

In total, just the amount of plastics dumped at sea from say, the 1960’s when plastics entered our lives in a big way through the mid-1980s (when at least those adhering to MARPOL Annex V quit dumping) is mind boggling. Particularly because all of that plastic is still with us – somewhere – today. We’ve contaminated the largest of earth’s commons, the oceans, with our plastics.

Considering this enormous tonnage of plastic in addition to that which has floated down rivers and out with the tides or with the sewage, left on beaches, blown from the decks of hulking garbage scows on their way to mega landfills in New York and New Jersey like Fresh Kills, Meadowlands and Pelham Bay, the recent encounters with a gyre full of plastic is sadly not surprising. What is surprising is that until now, no one really knew the extent to which we’d contaminated our oceans, and how that contamination would eventually come back to haunt us.

[1] Heyerdahl, Biological Conservation Vol 3 April 1971, 164-168

[2] Plastic Particle Pollution of the Surface of the Atlantic Ocean: Evidence from a Seabird, The Condor 75:344-366, 1973.

[3] Statement of Mr. David Laist Senior Policy and Program Analyst Marine Mammal Commission, Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, 1986 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation, Washington, DC Serial No. 99-47. P. 21


[5] Statement of C.E. O’Connell, President of the Society of the Plastics Industry, Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, 1986 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation, Washington, DC Serial No. 99-47 p. 108.

[6] Horsman, 1982, The Amount of Garbage Pollution from Merchant Ships, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 13:167-169. Wastes in the Marine Environment, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC, 1987.

[7] Navy’s Shipboard Solid Waste Management Program, Ye-Ling Wang, 1997.

[8] A Float Solid Waste Characterization Study, 2008

[9] Clean Ships, Clean Ports, Clean Oceans p. 23

Friday, September 25, 2009

Lice patrol

Though I’ve got lice stories to tell of my own, I’ve been embargoed by the victims. So instead I’ll begin with my friend, Kate’s* daughter, who discovered the unwelcome visitors two days before her first day of high school – a school in a new town where she didn’t know a soul. As if walking into a new social situation wasn’t hard enough!

Although Kate makes a point to tread lightly on this earth, choosing natural to synthetic, and organic when possible, for her, this called for an exception.

“We went for the toxic stuff,” she said.

Why lice, so common these days, can still cause one to be ostracized I don’t know. There isn’t a school around that hasn’t reported a recent outbreak.

Growing up in the suburbs circa 1960s, lice was more of a joke than a problem. “You don’t have lice do you?” was a common refrain when offered a comb or brush for our preteen locks. No one ever thought their best friend would seriously be harboring the little critters.

So back in the mid-ninties when lice hit my daughter’s day care, I was appalled.

A few years later those lice had apparently moved on to my kids’ elementary school, where the motto “Caring is Sharing” apparently went a little too far (and yes embarrassingly enough, that was their motto - at least for a time.) Each year, as the dreaded “letter” indicating a new crop of lice arrived in the mail, we’d tentatively comb through our kids’ hair, thankful every time we found suspect nits to be nothing more than lint. Our school wasn’t alone. It is estimated that upwards of six to twelve million kids ages 3-12 are infested each year in the United States alone.

Humans have been battling lice since the earliest days of our existence. Archeological digs reveal lice or nits (the rice-like egg cases adult female lice affix to human hair shafts) on human hairs, old combs, mummies you name it. And, just to dispel any fears, the body lice associated with Typhus and other diseases are not the lice that infect our silken locks. In fact there are three types of lice, head lice, body lice and pubic lice. Curiously and thankfully they not only seem to know their place on our bodies, but can apparently distinguish us, their favored and only host, from our pet pooches and lap cats. And, head lice, unlike body lice, are seldom associated with disease other than excessive itching and an occasional infection as a result of said itching.

Given all these years living together, humans of course have developed a diverse arsenal from the lethal to the eccentric fight these beasties. A swig of shed snake skin tea anyone? Or perhaps a liniment of mercury and stavesacre - also known as lice-bane, or Delphinium staphisagria – a beautiful but highly toxic plant. In the 1920’s its topical use was apparently associated with the death of at least one child. And then there was, and according to some reports still is, kerosene. A treatment which brings me back to my tree-climbing days when my father used gasoline to remove sticky pine-sap from my hands. Clean of sap, but coated with a flammable solvent I’d walk to the shower afraid I might explode. Not a recommended practice – and something I’d thought was left behind with the generation for whom chemicals were life saving and life simplifying miracles – not for our generation who was left to clean up their mess. So I was surprised when, besides exhortations to avoid using kerosene, I came across a recent report from
Harvard School of Public Health warning those seeking lice-treatments away from “…motor or machine oils, as these materials can be harmful.” Really? But then, we’ve used plenty of harmful treatments to remove the itchy pests over the years.

For decades the most effective treatment was DDT – credited with keeping lice out of our hair from the 1940s when it was first hailed as a wonder-pesticide through the 70s (the chemist Paul Muller snagged a Nobel Prize eight years after patenting this now notorious organochlorine chemical.) DDT’s widespread use has been credited with keeping me and my 1960s compatriots lice-free throughout our youth. But then DDT became the poster-chemical for all that was wrong with wonton use of industrial, persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals. Not only did it contribute to the demise of raptors and fish eating birds, but after only a little over twenty years of use, the wily little beasts began to develop resistance (as did other pests treated with DDT.) Not surprising for an insect that can eat and mate at the same time. Clearly lice are efficient when it comes to survival and reproduction.

More recently, lice have developed resistance to other standbys like Lindane, now banned in California and some European countries for a combination of reasons - including its toxicity. One wonders why it’s still available for use in the U.S. when
according to the FDA “….serious side effects including seizures and deaths have been reported to the FDA in patients who use too much Lindane or after a second treatment with Lindane….Seizures can happen in some patients even if they use Lindane as directed; Certain people are at higher risk to develop seizures and death from Lindane. This includes: babies and children; elderly; people weighing less than 110 pounds (50 kg).”

If for some reason you are prescribed Lindane, I would suggest you check out FDA’s site and read carefully.

And then there are the commonly used and readily available over-the-counter formulations including RID, Pronto and licetrol, which rely upon an ancient remedy derived from chrysanthemums – pyrethrin. Unfortunately, today’s lice have developed resistance to both pyrethrins and their synthetic chemical cousin permethrin (found in NIX, another popular treatment.) According to one report, if lice are still hanging around after two courses of correctly applied treatments – your little guests are very likely resistant to eviction – at least by those chemicals.

And finally (for toxic stuff) there’s malathion – an FDA approved lice treatment for children greater than six years of age. Malathion not only is an irreversible neurotoxicant but also, in its commercial formulation, has the added risk of going up in flame. Because the treatment is so flammable, users are warned away from using hair dryers and curling irons (for the 8-12 hours required for treatment,) and while resistance has yet to be documented in the U.S. that’s not the case worldwide.

So, what’s a modern parent like Kate to do when faced with a head full of lice, and an impending social disaster for her child?

Enter the
Medical Letter On Drugs and Therapeutics, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to appraisals of new drugs, which just published a review of lice medications including FDA’s most recently approved treatment, a 5% benzyl alcohol lotion. According to Medical Letters, because it actively suffocates lice by opening and obstructing their airways – rather than working at a biochemical level (inhibiting certain enzymes, a mode of action to which insects may develop resistance) there’s some hope this treatment won’t contribute to development of “superlice.” Additionally studies suggest the required ten-minute treatment is not only effective but “well tolerated,” even by the very young. Though they note that “preterm neonates injected intravenously with products containing benzyl alcohol have developed a ‘gasping syndrome’ with CNS depression,….sometimes progressing to neurological deterioration and cardiovascular collapse,” lice treatments are topical and this one has been approved for infants six months of age and older.

There are also “smothering” treatments – like mayonnaise and olive oil – to which I can personally attest (though I won’t say how.) These treatments slow active lice down enough to easily remove, but be warned, at least one recipient of the treatment (which involves spending the night with hair dressed in mayonnaise) has sworn off the stuff for life.

Here again, one can find words of wisdom offered up by Harvard’s School of Public Health which cautions that “Olive oil (or any similar food-grade product) would seem intrinsically safe, but may have associated hazards nonetheless. Oil may cause accidents (slips), and would be difficult to remove from the hair and scalp.” Hmmmm, here's a thought - avoid swabbing your floors with the stuff, and you may be OK. Seriously though, their
site is worth checking out for a review of lice treatments in general.

Another smothering agent is dimethicone, the “primary” and apparently active ingredient in another newish product, LiceMD (I say apparently because it is frustratingly difficult to find any information on how the product works other than it contains
dimethicone.) Dimethicone is type of silicone oil. I can confirm the ease of combing one’s hair (my own) after use – silicone after all is an excellent lubricant for rusty chains and creaky doors too. So maybe we’re not too far from motor oil and other lubricants after all.

A more pleasant treatment might be a combination of essential oils including lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus dissolved in ethanol and isopropanol (another alcohol) –
reported to work as well on active lice as some of the more traditional pesticides to which lice are resistant.

Lice shouldn’t be cause for social trauma, but they are. So when the bugs find their way to your home, be patient – and at least give the non-toxics a try - they might just do the trick. And, you never know, there may even be some unexpected benefits - there’s nothing like gently combing through and nitpicking your kids hair to (at least temporarily) strengthen family ties - not that I'd know.

*Not her real name.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The salty dumping grounds: a brief history of ocean dumping

In light of all the recent activity surrounding ocean plastics including voyages by both Captain Charlie Moore and Scripps, I thought it might be relevant to consider our practice (past and present) of using the oceans as receptacles for our waste. This is a little different than the typical posts (it's from an earlier project on plastics) and will be posted in sections. Here's the first.

In with the tides, Nantasket Beach, 1988

As far as plastics in the ocean, I needed no introduction. All along the sandy beaches of Hull, a thin barrier beach reaching out into Massachusetts Bay, where my family resided each summer, plastics washed up by the incoming tide were a common sight. We knew when Boston’s sewers had overloaded by the condoms, tampon applicators and other assorted bits of plastic that washed ashore after a storm. When lobstermen switched from the picturesque wooden traps to plastic coated metal, we knew by the fragments of trap that poked up from the wet sand below the high-tide mark. So when the Coastweeks cleanup came to Hull in 1988 my father, garbage bag in hand, wearing his Sears dungarees, faded blue denim shirt, and size 12 Jack Purcells, combed the beach separating plastic, metal and cardboard from the sand. My father, along with hundreds of other volunteers that year, collected a total of 25 tons of debris from Massachusetts’s beaches.

That fall, as I attended the annual Society of Toxicology and Chemistry Halloween Dance dressed as “Beach waste,” I was na├»ve about the dangers of plastics. As far as I knew plastic was a nuisance and an eyesore but was essentially inert unless burned; not all that interesting to a toxicologist. But it made a good costume. A necklace of pink and white tampon applicators and milk bottle caps collected by my father was the perfect accessory to the orange fishnet cape adorned with fading coke bottles, pieces of old lobster trap and other assorted beach waste items. Problem was, only other east coast attendees got that I was beach waste.

Back then, Alice Outwater, fresh out of MIT’s graduate school worked with the floatable scum of Boston - wastewater scum - for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. She writes about the 1980s, “roughly fifty thousand tampon applicators a day were arriving at the wastewater treatment plants in Boston.”[1] Recently, I asked her about the fate of those applicators, “Most of the plastics in the wastewater,” she replied, “ended up in the scum, which, originally, was released on the outgoing tide. ” As recently as 1989, Boston’s sewage treatment plants released upwards of 10,000 gallons per day of that scum, which included grease, oil, and rosy pink tampon applicators,[2] and it was all legal.

Who would have thought that the applicators my sisters and I flushed from our Newton home might one day wash up on our beloved Nantasket beach in Hull? Did Playtex consider this when they manufactured the first silky plastic applicators back in 1962[3]? Or, did both Playtex and consumers assume, as generations before them, that flowing water combined with technology was the solution for much of our waste?

The solution to pollution

Our relationship with the world’s oceans includes worship, fear and contemplation, yet throughout history we have dumped our waste into the nearest water body. If the ocean was large enough to hide fearsome sea monsters, make ships disappear, and swallow Atlantis, surely it was large enough to absorb our waste. By one estimate, for every million molecules of the world’s waters, the ocean contains over 970,000 molecules, while glaciers and ice caps contain 21,000, rivers contain a single molecule[4], and all of life including us watery beings contains a mere half a molecule. So what could beings who represent less than one part-per-million of all the oceans water possibly do to harm the oceans? Turns out, quite a lot.

Four thousand years ago, the Sumerians not only figured out how to move water to where they wanted it, but they also managed to develop a sewer system to carry away their waste. Two thousand years ago Romans built public latrines that discharged via their central sewage system, aptly named the Cloaca Maxima, directly into the river Tiber. Despite all this historical precedent (although one might think we’d have figured this out sooner) western world city dwellers were still dumping chamber pots into the streets and ditches until well into the late nineteenth century. Fortunately for us, city engineers and health departments finally figured out what the ancients had known - that flowing water could carry away a city’s human waste. By early twentieth century, when my father’s father was setting down roots in his new country after a trip across the Atlantic, and in his new city Boston, Boston was being celebrated for having one of the best sewage treatment systems in the country thanks to a collection of pipes that sent the city’s wastewater out into Boston Harbor.

As east coast cities like Boston and New York exploded with immigrants like my grandfather and his family, so too did the amount of household waste, including ashes, garbage, night soil and cesspool cleanings (for those not hooked up to the cities sewers) which along with street sweepings and dead animals, ended up in watery graves along the eastern seaboard, out of sight. While our coastal ancestors paved the way for dumping at sea, inlanders were no different. For them, flowing water, was also the solution to growing waste problems. By the end of the nineteenth century, some Midwestern cities were dumping upwards of 270,000 tons of garbage, manure, night-soil and dead animals into the mighty Mississippi River, while others dumped into the Missouri, the Ohio[5] and the Great Lakes

Occasionally, all this dumping was problematic. Once in a while, dumping interfered with the boats and barges that worked the rivers, or the tides and winds conspired, pushing putrid waste back towards the shore. Navigation became difficult, and coastal areas became hazardous to one’s health. After this happened in Boston during the summer of 1898, ninety years before tampon applicators washed up in Hull, and almost 100 years before Alguita’s maiden voyage, the wisdom of dumping at sea was reconsidered[6]. By 1899 the country’s first law protecting our waterways was enacted.[7] Although key phrases like floatable waste and navigable waters separated the lawful from the unlawful, centuries-old habits die hard. Seven years after the new law, Bostonians were still sending literally tons of market waste, ashes and house dirt, street sweepings and cesspool and catch basin cleanings out to the coastal ocean. Dumping at sea was cheap. In 1912 for just 40 cents, Boston could unload a ton of garbage[8]. As long as the stuff didn’t reappear and as long as ships could still sail, there was no reason not to dump it.

Thankfully for us all, coastal garbage dumping eventually ceased, but our mindset, that the solution to pollution is the ocean, persists. Throughout the past century and into the next, coastal cities and towns have continued to rely upon local rivers and harbors to swallow up their citizen’s sewage. Yet the sewage and wastewater that traveled from my grandfather’s apartment out to the harbor was far different than the sewage that flowed from the subsequent generation of Bostonians who came of age living better through chemistry. Before the current age of plastics, much of what was dumped eventually degraded – even the oil. But plastics don’t break down – at least not within our lifetime. And as recently as 1987, over 1,000 major industrial facilities and nearly 600 municipal sewage treatment plants discharged directly into estuaries or coastal waters around the country[9] dispersing not only fugitive tampon applicators and other bits of plastics but industrial contaminants as well.

To find out more about plastics in our oceans today, check out websites of both the ORV Alguita (Captain Moore's vessel) and the New Horizon, (Scripps' vessel.)

The second part to this article can be found here.

[1] Water, by Alice Outwater pg 169, and personal communication.


[3]; "The new Gentle Glide tampon is a major breakthrough in design. Since 1962 when Playtex created the first plastic applicator tampon, we've continually improved the design of our feminine care products by listening to consumers and anticipating their feminine care needs. This exciting new product is designed to meet women's needs for ultimate comfort and protection", commented Julie Elkinton, Vice President of Feminine Care at Playtex.” From

[4] Gaia’s Body, Tyler Volk, p 112

[5] The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste, 1908, Wm F. Morse, The Municipal Waste Journal and Engineer, Ny, NY

[6] The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste, 1908, Wm F. Morse, The Municipal Waste Journal and Engineer, Ny, NY.


[8] R. Hering and S. Greeley: Collection and Disposal of Municipal Refuse, 1921

[9] Wastes in Marine Environments, OTA, 1987 p.13.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

PCBs: back with a vengence?

Teaching college-aged students can keep you young or, make you feel really old. In this case I was feeling particularly old. My college advisor, with whom I’d kept in touch over the years, had invited me to talk about chemical contaminants with her class of soon-to-be graduating seniors. Wanting to distinguish between the “trendy” chemical contaminants, and the “legacy” contaminants, I brought up PCBs.

“You all know what PCBs are don’t you?” I’d asked, after observing what seemed like puzzled expressions on more than a few young faces. Shrugs all around, with the exception of one eager and confidently raised hand.

"Polychlorinated biphenyls,” responded the proud owner of that hand.

The rest were still clearly puzzled. As was I. How could these bright young students be ignorant of one of this century’s most important legacy chemicals? Not only that, but how could these students who attended college in Schenectady, home of General Electric – the company that not only brought “Good Things to Life,” but also introduced PCBs to much of the Hudson River - be ignorant of one of the most important contaminants in their backyards? (Well, aside from depleted uranium, but that’s another story.)

PCBs, I realized, define the chemical generation gap. These kids didn’t have a clue. Except for all the flap over the Hudson River cleanup nearly a decade ago unless you're unfortunate enough to be directly impacted by Monsanto (one of the primary producers of PCBS), GE or other PCBs users, you rarely hear about the chemical these days.

Until this past weekend, that is. I should have known something was up when a friend and colleague working at Berkshire Community College sent a Facebook message indicating she had some questions about PCBs. She never followed up, and to be honest, I thought, “What could anyone want to know about those these days?” Never mind that the college is located in Pittsfield, MA – the other home of GE – where the company not only contaminated the nearby
Housatonic River, but also neighborhoods all over the city (again – a story for another time.)

But PCBs reentered my life, and many others, on a sunny Sunday morning, with a front page article about PCBs in caulking published by the
Boston Globe. Over the past couple of years, PCBs have been discovered in samples of window and masonry caulking of school buildings and others built circa 1960-70 and possibly earlier. Most of it found following incidental or voluntary testing including voluntary testing by Berkshire Community College. At some sites, testing revealed incredibly high concentrations - meaning hundreds of thousands of parts per million. Which means hundreds of parts per thousand. That’s high, when disposal of waste containing just fifty part-per-million PCBs often requires special consideration. I immediately wondered about my kid's school - though recently renovated, the original building had that 60's look. As a new member of the school committee and more than well aware of our dire finances did I even want to know about this? As a parent with two kids in the school, and a toxicologist - I am obligated to ask.

PCBs are really a complex mixture of similarly structured chemicals – carbon rings with assorted number and placement of chlorines. Which means when considering
PCB toxicity, one must consider toxicity of many different chemicals which may act independently or as a complex mixture. That is, exposure to one PCB may influence the toxicity of another PCB, or one kind of PCB might affect the brain, while another may affect reproduction. Understanding health and environmental impacts of single chemicals is difficult enough. Understanding complex mixtures can take a lifetime -- and plenty of good scientists have devoted their careers to PCBs (they just don't make Science News or the front page these days.)

To date, PCBs are considered all-around toxicants at least in laboratory studies (and by association, in epidemiological studies on highly exposed human populations) affecting reproduction, neurological development, immune response and reproduction and are considered a probable human carcinogen by the USEPA. In the environment in addition to impacting other species, they are credited with wiping out mink populations that once lived along contaminated rivers. Mink for example, are exquisitely sensitive to the reproductive impacts of certain kinds of PCBs.

But before there is widespread panic, there are questions that must be answered, including 1) concentrations of PCBs in caulking 2) amounts of PCBs released from contaminated caulking 3) how might one be exposed to PCBs from caulking, 4) and potential exposures of teachers and students exposed PCBs released from caulking? (According to the Globe this is the topic of an ongoing study.)

Now that PCBs are back on the front page, maybe the next time I ask students about these important legacies, they won’t be so puzzled.

UPDATE: EPA recently issued a press release (on Sept 25 2009) along with the following website for those concerned about PCBs in caulk: