PCBs, the infamous chemicals keep harming the environment

PCBs have been banned in the USA since 1979. Yet these persistent compounds still wreak havoc on the health of our planet and its inhabitants.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, are a group of highly toxic man-made chemicals introduced in the early twentieth century and quickly acclaimed as an industrial breakthrough. Like the pesticide DDT and herbicide Agent Orange, which were also once thought to be safe, PCBs have a dark side. They don’t break down easily and can turn into dangerous dioxins when burned. Although no longer used nor produced in the United States for almost forty years, PCBs can have devastating effects on the soil, waterways and all forms of life on the planet – for decades.

A brief history of PCBs

Produced by Monsanto in the United States, by the 1930s PCBs were in high demand for use in electrical equipment, surface coating, ink, adhesives, flame-retardants and paint. Round about the same time workers at manufacturing plants started showing signs of intoxication: damage to their immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems, skin ailments, loss of energy and appetite, as well as liver disease and cancer. A 1969 study by Doctor Riseborough of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated that high levels of the contaminants had affected marine life worldwide. The public’s trust in Monsanto declined as the company downplayed the toxicity of the compounds. Many tonnes of contaminated poultry, pork, cattle and fish, unfit for human consumption, have been destroyed since.

Environmental and food chain contamination

Although levels have decreased since the late 1970s, the major source of air exposure to PCBs today is the redistribution of compounds already present in the soil and water, transported across the planet via air, rain and snow, even to remote and pristine areas of the world. As PCBs are fat-soluble they build up in animal fat, including breast milk, and along the food chain. Consumption of contaminated foods, particularly meat, fish and poultry remains the main source of exposure for consumers. Fishing is still partially restricted in the Great Lakes region of the United States, in fact, and the high concentration of toxins in the blubber of orca whales along the Pacific Coast of North America represents a true danger to their survival and propagation.


Reducing exposure

In order to limit exposure to PCB residues, environmental organisations recommend choosing fish wisely. Atlantic or farmed salmon as well as other species are best avoided. Online seafood databases as well as smartphone apps list safer fish. Cooking methods that allow the fat to drip away can also help. When it comes to meat and dairy buy organic and ethically-sourced. A balanced and healthy diet rich in fresh, organic fruit, vegetables and naturally detoxifying foods along with physical exercise can aid our bodies in dealing with some of these toxins. Also, when possible avoid exposure to PBDEs, the successors to PCBs, which are currently used as flame retardants in many consumer goods and pose similar risks.

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