Will we be Fishless?: Part IX

The problem of responsibly disposing of PCBs has been with us for over a century, since Monsanto first developed them. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are industrial products or chemicals. learn that definition and don’t forget what is poisoning this Planet and how it first began to do so.

Many of us know them as PCBs and expect, after all we have heard of the harm they do to the marine environment, that by now they are being captured before they end up in the oceans.

Of course, that is a fantasy. We continue our anthropogenic violence toward this beautiful Planet inexorably.

 PCBs were banned in the U.S. in 1979 amid suggestions that these chemicals could have unintended impacts on human and environmental health.

So states the item in the NOAA Ocean service pages on the subject.

It is no longer a suggestion, it is a well known fact.

The article goes on to tell us:

From the 1920s until their ban, an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were made for things such as microscope oils, electrical insulators, capacitors, and electric appliances such as television sets or refrigerators. PCBs were also sprayed on dirt roads to keep the dust down prior to knowing some of the unintended consequences from widespread use. 

Prior to the ban in 1979, PCBs entered the air, water, and soil during manufacture and use. Wastes from the manufacturing process that contained PCBs were often placed in dump sites or landfills. Occasionally, accidental spills and leaks from these facilities or transformer fires could result in PCBs entering the environment.

Any item containing PCBs manufactured before 1979 remains a threat to the environment, these include (according to the US Environment Protection Agency:

Products that may contain PCBs include:

  • Transformers and capacitors
  • Electrical equipment including voltage regulators, switches, re-closers, bushings, and electromagnets
  • Oil used in motors and hydraulic systems
  • Old electrical devices or appliances containing PCB capacitors
  • Fluorescent light ballasts
  • Cable insulation
  • Thermal insulation material including fiberglass, felt, foam, and cork
  • Adhesives and tapes
  • Oil-based paint
  • Caulking
  • Plastics
  • Carbonless copy paper
  • Floor finish

I do not need to look far in my country to see these still in use, and if being disposed of we have recycling centres where we assume such waste is being disposed of responsibly.

The EPA further explains:

Release and Exposure of PCBs

Today, PCBs can still be released into the environment from:

  • Poorly maintained hazardous waste sites that contain PCBs
  • Illegal or improper dumping of PCB wastes
  • Leaks or releases from electrical transformers containing PCBs
  • Disposal of PCB-containing consumer products into municipal or other landfills not designed to handle hazardous waste
  • Burning some wastes in municipal and industrial incinerators

PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment. They can remain for long periods cycling between air, water and soil. PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far from where they were released into the environment. As a consequence, they are found all over the world. In general, the lighter the form of PCB, the further it can be transported from the source of contamination.

PCBs can accumulate in the leaves and above-ground parts of plants and food crops. They are also taken up into the bodies of small organisms and fish. As a result, people who ingest fish may be exposed to PCBs that have bioaccumulated in the fish they are ingesting.

The US Environment Defence Fund provide the following advice:

PCBs in fish and shellfish

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are highly toxic industrial compounds. They pose serious health risks to fetuses, babies and children, who may suffer developmental and neurological problems from prolonged or repeated exposure to small amounts of PCBs. These chemicals are harmful to adults as well. Although they were banned from manufacture in the United States in 1977, PCBs are slow to break down and can persist in the environment at dangerous levels.

PCBs accumulate in the sediments at the bottoms of streams, rivers, lakes and coastal areas. These chemicals can build up in the fatty tissues of fish and other animals, and in high concentrations pose serious health risks to people who frequently eat contaminated fish. Based on available data on PCB concentrations in fish, Environmental Defense recommends limiting consumption of certain fish (see Health Alerts).

WHAT ARE PCBS AND WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?

PCBs are man-made chlorinated industrial chemicals also known by the trade name of Aroclor. There are 209 different PCB compounds (called congeners), which can be mixed in different combinations to yield different Aroclor compounds. These mixtures tend to be chemically stable and nonflammable, with high boiling points and electrical insulating properties.

This combination of useful chemical properties made PCBs popular for a variety of industrial applications, including use in electrical transformers, hydraulic fluids, lubricants and carbonless paper. More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States before they were banned, and some electrical equipment in use today still contains PCBs.

Unfortunately, the same properties that made PCBs ideal for industrial use make them slow to break down in the environment. Most PCBs do not mix with water and settle into riverbeds, lake bottoms and coastal sediments. Here they can enter the food chain and bioaccumulate in invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals — including people.

Although these chemicals have been banned for many years, increased testing has recently shown that the problem of PCB-contaminated fish is widespread. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Listing of Fish and Wildlife Advisories, advisories for PCBs increased 177% between 1993 and 2003 (from 319 to 884). Thirty-nine states issued PCB advisories in 2003, up from 31 states in 1993. As of 2003, more than two million lake acres and 130,000 river miles were covered by some type of PCB advisory. Three states (Indiana, Maryland and New York) and the District of Columbia have issued statewide freshwater advisories, and seven states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island) have issued statewide coastal advisories for PCBs.Statewide advisories urge people to limit their consumption of all fish and shellfish from freshwater or coastal areas.

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH CONSUMING PCB-CONTAMINATED FISH?

According to EPA, contaminated fish are a persistent source of PCBs in the human diet. PCBs are not highly toxic with a single dose (as in a single meal), but continued low levels of exposure (for example, eating contaminated fish over an extended period of time) may be harmful. EPA rates PCBs as “probable human carcinogens,” since they cause cancer in laboratory animals. Other tests on laboratory animals show damage from PCBs to their circulatory, nervous, immune, endocrine and digestive systems.

A number of studies indicate that PCBs harm people, with fetuses and young children especially susceptible to the effects of PCBs on their developing nervous systems. For example, some recent studies found that:

  • Children of mothers who ate fish with large amounts of PCBs from the Great Lakes had smaller head size, reduced visual recognition and delayed muscle development.
  • A mother’s exposure to PCBs and other chemicals was linked to slight effects on her child’s birth weight, short-term memory, and learning.
  • Older adults (49 to 86 years old) who ate fish containing PCBs and other contaminants had lower scores on several measures of memory and learning.

HOW CAN I REDUCE THE RISKS OF EATING SEAFOOD CONTAMINATED WITH PCBS?

PCBs build up in fish and animal fat, and therefore proper cooking methods can help reduce your exposure:

  • Before cooking, remove the skin, fat (found along the back, sides and belly), internal organs, tomalley of lobster and the mustard of crabs, where toxins are likely to accumulate.
  • When cooking, be sure to let the fat drain away and avoid or reduce fish drippings.
  • Serve less fried fish; frying seals in chemical pollutants that might be in the fish’s fat, while grilling or broiling allows fat to drain away.
  • For smoked fish, it is best to fillet the fish and remove the skin before the fish is smoked.
  • Fish low in contaminants are an important part of a healthy diet. That’s why Environmental Defense recommends limiting consumption of certain fish due to elevated PCB levels (see Health Alerts).

In the UK, fried fish and chips is the undisputed national dish.

There are no warnings to avoid this delicious meal. I have known it all my life, and although I am more inclined to eat vegan nowadays, I can be tempted with fish and chips if offered.

In the US, this is how the Clean Up is attempted. There is an effort to educate through schools too.

In 2017, here in the UK, the Guardian reported in 2017:

Did this information reach you? And, if so, are you taking responsible action?

If not, maybe you are like me and totally ignorant about the subject? I began this search for answers based on the knowledge I do have that fish contain contaminants and I should not eat them as regularly as I would like.

I am aware of media coverage of our plastic filled oceans and suffering aquamarine life. The next blog will be about Oil and Plastic, but we all do know about oil spills as they have been causing immense suffering to wildlife (and people) ever since oil was discovered.

I had never heard that ‘PCBs’ was an acronym for polychlorinated biphenyls, so I have only now taught myself a little about them. Maybe we should all take a closer look?

Race is on to rid UK waters of PCBs after toxic pollutants found in killer whale

Scientists say more must be done to eliminate the chemicals, which have a devastating impact on marine life and can end up in the food chain

The body of Lulu the killer whale was found on jagged rocks on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. A member of the only pod found in British waters, she had died last year after getting entangled in fishing lines.

It was a sad discovery, especially as a post-mortem revealed Lulu had never produced a calf. But the recent autopsy also revealed something else; something that is alarming marine experts and which offers a bleak, damning judgment on the state of Britain’s coastal waters. Lulu’s body contained among the highest levels of a particular type of man-made chemicals ever recorded – more than 100 times above the level that scientists say will have biological consequences for a species.

Few will have heard of PCBs – or polychlorinated biphenyls. The chemicals were banned in the late 70s amid fears about their toxicity. Recent estimates suggest that Europe produced anything between 299,000 and 585,000 tonnes of PCBs. The US produced even more.

But while industry has stopped using PCBs in the manufacture of everything from transformers to thermal insultation to paints and adhesives, millions of tonnes of the chemicals continue to be in circulation. It is only now that their enduring and pernicious impact is being understood, as support for a clean-up, along the lines of successful experiments in the US, is taking hold.

“If we go back to the late 70s or early 80s, there were major campaigns from organisations such as Greenpeace focused on what they called toxics – which included PCBs,” said Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist at the Humane Society International.

“There was a tremendous effort to get them under control and banned and those bans were effective – the levels of PCBs being detected have clearly declined and so the campaigning organisations packed up their tents and went off to look at something else and we all kind of rejoiced and thought this was a major environmental victory.”

But Simmonds now believes the victory was, to some extent, hollow. While PCBs are no longer being produced, they are extremely hardy, given that they were designed to resist extreme heat. Guidance from the US Environmental Protection Agency explains that PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment. “They can remain for long periods cycling between air, water and soil. PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far from where they were released into the environment.”

“It’s a difficult problem,” said Simmonds. “The PCBs are coming from two places – from buildings and materials that are still being destroyed and dumped, resulting in a new release of PCBs into the environment. And PCBs are also getting recycled into the wider environment through activities such as dredging programmes in estuaries.”

Ultimately, PCBs find their way into the food chain. “PCBs on land eventually get into the water course,” said Paul Jepson, a veterinary specialist in Wildlife Population Health at the Zoological Society of London. “Then they get into rivers, then into fish, then into sediment, then into estuaries then to ocean, the ultimate dump. Then they get into crabs and moluscs, then into fish, then into bigger fish and finally into apex predators such as sharks and killer whales at the top of the food chain.”

Emerging evidence of the pernicious impact of PCBs may explain why there are no great white sharks in British waters. “We should have great white sharks around the UK,” Jepson said.

“There’s no reason not to have them. Our seal population has been growing for years, there’s plenty of food and they used to be here; they were almost as widely distributed as killer whales, historically but, when did anyone see a great white shark in recent years off the UK or the north east Atlantic?”

Simmonds believes the impact of PCBs may explain the absence of other species from British waters. “As we look around the UK historically, we would have expected to see bottle-nosed dolphins in any of our estuaries,” he said. “We have them in Cardigan Bay and the Moray Firth and a few around Cornwall and Devon – but it’s very much a reduced population from where it should be. There are many different factors affecting them but one of the key things is probably PCBs repressing their reproduction and making them more vulnerable to infection.”

Equally vulnerable are polar bears, which ingest PCBs when they feast on seals. And, like killer whales, the bears can transfer PCBs to their offspring through their milk. Killer whales have an 11-month lactation period during which they produce very high fat milk for their calves. The higher the fat, the easier it is for PCBs to dissolve in it.

Unsurprisingly, then, some of the highest concentrations of PCBs recorded have been in newborn killer whales. Post-mortems conducted on some six-month-old calves found they had absorbed about 80% of the PCBs that were in their mother.

A scientific paper by Jepson and his colleagues, published last year, reveals that PCBs were found in every single one of 1,081 dolphins, porpoises and killer whales they studied. Of these – about 55% of the harbour porpoises, most of the striped dolphins and bottlenose dolphins and all the killer whales had high levels of PCB – levels that were greater than 9.0 miligrams of PCB per kilogram of their lipid or body fat. It is above this level that races of PCB can have biological consequences for certain species.

But many killer whales have far higher concentrations – typically between 10 and 100 times above the 9mg/kg threshold. Lulu had PCBs measuring 957 mg/kg lipid.

At these levels, species stop reproducing, Jepson said. This probably accounts for why Lulu’s pod produced no calves – the nightmare scenario. Ultimately, if species stop reproducing they become extinct.

And further dramatic evidence provided by researchers in this report in 2018, here is an extract and image from the piece:

Killer whales are particularly threatened in heavily contaminated areas like the waters near Brazil, the Strait of Gibraltar and around the U.K. Around the British Isles, the researchers estimate that the remaining population counts less than 10 killer whales. Also along the east coast of Greenland, killer whales are effected due to the high consumption of sea mammals like seals.

PCBs accumulate in the food chain

The killer whale is one of the most widespread mammals on Earth and is found in all of the world’s oceans from pole to pole. But today, only the populations living in the least-polluted areas include a large number of individuals. Overfishing and man-made noise may also affect the health of the animals, but PCBs can have a dramatic effect on the reproduction and immune system of the killer whales.

The diet of killer whales includes seals and large fish such as tuna and sharks the accumulate PCBs and other pollutants stored at successive levels of the food chain. It is these populations of killer whales that have the highest PCB concentrations and it is these populations that are at the highest risk of population collapse. Killer whales that primarily feed on small-sized fish such as herring and mackerel have a significantly lower content of PCBs and are thus at lower risk of effects.

It might help our human populations to be more educated about polychlorinated biphenyls and how to carefully decontaminate them to save ourselves. If the most accumulations of these contaminants are particularly at dangerous levels around Britain, then it follows we should all take an interest in the subject. It should not be a low profile area of information, but named as a high threat to the Planet emanating particularly from historical industrial applications in the UK. Our government supplies advice, but this is not written in layman’s terms.

UK waste dumped in Turkey

I can deposit waste at our local recycling centre, but there is no information about where it will end up. I know Turkey is the No 1 dumping ground for much our waste, with the intention it will be recycled. But they cannot recycle their own waste fast enough, never mind ours, and ours is dumped by roadsides or set on fire.

When I pursue the subject, I find hazardous waste is termed ‘special waste’ by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. People who know they have such ‘special waste’ must following regulations to dispose of it.

Here is an extract:

What do I do next?

All special (hazardous) waste produced in Scotland must be consigned using a SEPA-issued consignment note or code, regardless of its final destination within the UK.  Further details on how to use SWCNs during COVID-19 are available in Special waste consignment notes – temporary regulatory position.

To purchase SWCN Codes please call 07388 371621. We will provide an order number and codes via text message. Payment by BACs is strongly preferred. You can discuss alternative methods of payment with us via the phone number above.

One-page and five-page editable PDF copies of the SWCN are available to download and use. Please note that you must still purchase a unique code from SEPA to accompany them. Guidance on completing SWCNs (paper or editable PDF copies) is in our guidance on consigning special waste document. Editable PDF copies of the carrier schedule and additional sheet are aso available.

You may use your own paperwork for special waste consignments. However, you must still purchase a unique code from SEPA to accompany them.

The paperwork must be a form corresponding to Schedule 1 to The Special Waste Regulations 1996 or  “substantially to the like effect”. It must also give the details required by the Regulations in respect of that consignment.

If disposing of hazardous waste costs money, many people will illicitly dump items and ruin the environment further. In my opinion, the manufacturers of said equipment should be made, by law, to carry out the process of disposal following the legal process.

If the manufacturer no longer exists, then governments should fund the careful decontamination process and encourage those who still possess such items to bring it to special centres which should have a high profile in all localities.

I searched for a hazardous waste facility in Scotland, and it is impressive, but not sufficiently comprehensive. But had I not informed myself of this subject, I would never have felt the urge to follow through and find out what happens in the specialized hazardous waste collection, recycling, treatment and disposal process.

Tradebe website lists the kind of waste they can collect:

No farm, garage, printing works or other business who know they have these hazardous items on their premises should try to avoid responsible disposal through this kind of service. It is illegal to do otherwise. But is there adequate funding to police all industry to ensure nothing leaks into the environment through their industrial processes? How many times do we hear of chemicals polluting local rivers or outflowing to the sea? The business usually gets fined, but they are not put out of business. Yet they add to the accumulation of harm on this Earth, and are not being severely punished.

As responsible individual citizens we want to do what we can to dispose of our waste responsibly but we may be doing harm without knowing it as the subject is not sufficiently high profile enough.

It is not simply a matter we can leave to activists. It is not an eccentric interest. It has relevance for all life on earth.

Today I saw some Fieldfare thrushes about to begin their migration out of the UK. They used to be plentiful, arriving in their hundreds here. But today I counted less than 6. They are one of the Red Status endangered species. Each day of my life I find there are fewer and fewer examples of wildlife flourishing in my country.

What will be left for future generations when, during my lifetime, I have seen such chaos and destruction rip through this Planet?

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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