PCB’s Environmental Invasion

Life is a precious element to a broad range of creatures. When a chemical toxin invades life’s environment, we should all be concerned. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of chemical compounds that are invading and polluting the environment. They cause severe health problems in humans and affect many creatures in nature. Scientist found high PCB levels in two orca whales that washed up dead last February near the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Ko, 2002). The United States Environmental Protection Agency claims they are quick to act on all PCB discoveries, but it may be too late. There are some remedies to remove PCBs from the environment, but it doesn’t take care of the entire problem.

Polychlorinated biphenyls are a group of chemicals compounds that have no molecular breakdown. They were used by the industrial manufacturing industry between 1930-1970. They were primarily used as electrical insulators in transformers and other electrical equipment. They were also used in a variety of products such as: power saws, typewriters, cereal boxes, and bread wrappers (Heimlich, 2002). They were released into the environment during their use by smokestacks, leakage of old equipment, leaching from landfills, and other polluted sediments. In 1976 after growing concerns and findings of high levels of PCBs in the environment; Congress banned all uses including the processing and distribution of PCBs (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2002).

These chemicals have filtered into every aspect of the environment. It has seeped into the soil and been carried down streams into our oceans. The toxic effects of PCBs include the death of animals, low growth rate in plants, and severe health problems in humans (Heimlich, 2002). According to an EPA study that was completed in 1987; chronic exposure to PCBs can cause cancer (EPA, 2002). It can also affect the reproductive system, immune system, and the nervous system. There are several alarming cases throughout the United States.

In a small town in Alabama, 20,000 current and former residents have filed a class action lawsuit against the company Monsanto who manufactured PCBs between 1929 and 1971 (CBS News). High levels of the toxin have been found in the town’s soil, air, wildlife, and in the residents themselves. They are facing health problems that include cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Children that live in Anniston can’t even play outside because the soil is so contaminated.

In another case in New York State, PCBs that have contaminated the soil and shores of the Hudson River have now become airborne. This has effected a large population of people that live hundreds of miles up the river. General Electric, who is responsible for the contamination is spending millions of dollars to clean up the contamination from two of their abandoned factories that flowed into the Hudson Falls for thirty years.

PCBs are greatly affecting many species in the environment that is part of the food chain. In 1999 the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) conducted a study analyzing fish tissues from several different species in the Willamette River between Oregon City and Salem. The study concluded that high levels of PCBs and other chemical contaminants were found in all species of fish. The ODEQ set up health advisory guidelines for consuming fish in that area.

The largest species of the animal population that has been affected are whales. Since PCBs adhere to the fatty tissue, whales have been found with high levels of PCBs. It has especially been prone to the Pacific Northwest. In February of 2002 one killer whale was found dead near the Dungeness Spit near Port Angeles (Ko, 2002). Scientists found the toxicity of this whale was beyond normal. One thousand ppt were found in the whale’s blubber, and was the likely cause of death.

Beluga Whales living at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River off the Coast of Canada have been discovered to have high rates of cancer caused from PCBs. The cause was from an aluminum smelter upstream that was closed in the early 1970’s. Salmon which is a commodity in the Northwest have also recently been found to have high levels of PCBs. They are already endangered and the PCBs are having an affect on their reproductive systems. Since salmon are important part of the food chain the contamination continues to the species that eat the fish such as bald eagles.

PCBs are causing severe abnormalities in the Polar Bear population in the Artic. Several cubs have been found with both male and female sex organs. This is believed to be caused by industrial pollution from Europe and Asia. As you can see PCBs affect every aspect of the environment.

There are some skeptical solutions for ridding the world of this toxic persistent chemical. PCBs are destroyed when they are burned at 2400 degrees F? (Heimlich, 2002). Many of the corporations responsible for the pollution, with the help of the EPA are making an effort to clean up the towns that they have polluted. In the case in Alabama, Solutia has spent more that fifty million dollars replacing the soil and have measured lower levels of exposures of PCBs (CBS News).

At the Hudson River in New York State a process has been conducted called environmental soil dredging. Dredging by hydraulic machinery removes the contaminated sediment in a controlled manner. There is no known way to remove PCBs from the oceans, and nature.

The chemical compounds that make up PCBs should be an environmental concern to everyone. The mistake was made years ago by large industrialized corporations with the support of our government by manufacturing these chemicals before they knew the long term effects. It has not only affected the land, it’s seeped into every crevice of life. PCBs cause extreme health problems in humans including brain development, memory, lowered immune system, and cancer.

It’s contaminated our food chain. The health of nature is just a mirror image of humanity. Whales, which are precious beings, are dying off at alarming rates. The solutions have only masked the problems. Environmental dredging still leaves levels of PCBs in the soil. Burning the chemical compounds still leaves traces in the environment. These so called solutions don’t solve the health concerns for wildlife. The Earth with all of its wisdom should find a balance between success and the environment. If something is thought of to protect our environment, it shall perish.


Heimlich, J. The Invisible Environment Series Ohio State University. Retrieved January

19, 2003 from World Wide Web: http://www.ohioline.osu.edu/cd-fact

Ko,M. (2002, June) A whale of a problem. The Report Newsmagazine, pp A906.

Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality. (2000) Middle Willamette River

Fish Consumption Study. Retrieved January 19, 2003 from World Wide Web:


Don Hewitt. (November 11, 2002) Toxic Secret. Anniston, Alabama. CBS news.

US. Environmental Protection Agency. (2002) PCBS. Retrieved January 19, 2003 from

World Wide Web: www.epa.gov/pcbs