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Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

PCBs are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals with the same basic chemical structure and similar physical properties ranging from oily liquids to waxy solids. PCBs were widely used as a fire preventive and insulator in the manufacture of transformers capacitors due to their non-flammability, chemical stability, high boiling point and electrical insulating properties. PCBs were also used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications including electrical, heat transfer, and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics and rubber products; in pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper and many other applications. More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States prior to cessation of production in 1977 (USEPA. Welcome to the PCB Home Page at EPA. 10/12/2005).

PCBs entered the air, water, and soil during their manufacture, use, and disposal; from accidental spills and leaks during their transport; and from leaks or fires in products containing PCBs. They can still be released to the environment from hazardous waste sites; illegal or improper disposal of industrial wastes and consumer products; leaks from old electrical transformers containing PCBs; and burning of some wastes in incinerators (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ToxFAQs™ for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) (Bifenilos Policlorados (BPCs). 10/12/2005). PCBs can be transported by by various environmental media, including air and water, spreading contamination to other areas.

The very characteristic of the PCBs that made them useful in manufacturing makes them problematic in the environment. PCBs do not readily break down in the environment and thus may remain there for very long periods of time.

Organisms such as fish and birds may accumulate PCBs from the water, from food or from sediments. The degree to which PCBs accumulate in animals is dependent on a number of factors, including their trophic position within the ecosystem, feeding strategy, longevity, fat content, sex, and reproductive status.

PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals. PCBs have also been shown to cause a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects (USEPA. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) - Health Effects of PCBs. 08/08/2008).

Learn about DDT or some of the other Contaminants the Environmental Contaminants Program has addressed.


The Hudson River PCB Superfund Site
(Summary from:National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hudson River PCB Superfund Site. 10/12/2005):

For approximately 30 years, beginning in 1947 at Fort Edward and in 1952 at Hudson Falls, New York, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were discharged into the upper Hudson River by manufacturing plants operated by General Electric Company (GE). The discharges resulted from the washing of PCB-containing capacitors and accidental spills that occurred during manufacturing. Until 1973, a large quantity of PCB contamination was trapped in sediment behind a dam at Fort Edward. When the Fort Edward dam was removed that year, an estimated 1.3 million cubic yards of PCB-laden sediment was released downstream. PCB contamination now exists in all 200 miles of river, including the Battery in New York Harbor. In addition, previously unidentified subterranean sources of PCB contamination were discovered throughout the early 1990s .

The Hudson River PCB site was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) in 1981 and a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) was initiated for the site in 1997

Links:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - Hudson River Homepage

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Hudson River PCB Superfund Site

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
- Hudson River PCBs
- Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
- Health Effects of PCBs

The Community Advisory Group for the Hudson River PCBs Superfund Site

 

Last updated: February 13, 2013