By Andrew Wineke, Waste 2 Resources communications
A new report by the City of Spokane underlines the need to take a closer look at the sources of the toxic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
First, a little background: In March, Ecology completed an in-depth analysis of how PCBs are getting into our environment. This report, called a chemical action plan, looks at how a toxic chemical gets into the environment and recommends actions to eliminate or reduce those sources.
PCBs are persistent in the environment, build up in the food chain, and can cause adverse health effects in humans and wildlife, including cancer and harm to immune, nervous, and reproductive systems.
PCBs were banned nearly 40 years ago, so you would expect most of the major sources to be old equipment, such as power transformers, and building materials, like paint and caulk. And those were identified as significant sources.
What’s troubling, however, is that newly created PCBs are also major contributors to this toxic pollution. Small amounts of PCBs are created as a byproduct of some manufacturing processes, such as making certain pigments for paints and dyes. This inadvertent generation is allowed by the federal Toxics Substances Control Act.
This is where the City of Spokane comes in.
PCBs are a major water quality challenge in Spokane, where the Washington Department of Health advises residents against eating fish caught in some sections of the Spokane River because of PCB contamination.
Using funding from an Ecology stormwater grant, Spokane tested ordinary products it uses to paint its streets, maintain its parks, and clean city vehicles. It also tested a handful of common household products, such as dish soap and toothpaste.
Those tests found PCBs in all but two of the products at levels that raised concerns – even though they are below the limits set by the PCB ban. The levels in hydroseed (used to cover and regrow grass after construction projects) and road deicer were surprisingly high.
|A new report looks at PCBs found in common municipal products.|
Now, this was just one study and it considered a relatively small selection of products. Nevertheless, the testing demonstrated that inadvertent generation of PCBs has the potential to impact the environment.
For its part, the City of Spokane says it will use the test results to help it find safer, PCB-free products. Both state law and a Spokane city ordinance require public agencies to buy PCB-free products where available, so this work is a first step toward finding safer products.
Ecology continues to work with partners in Spokane and elsewhere in the state to find and remove sources of PCBs.
Ecology’s PCB Chemical Action Plan
Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force
Ecology’s Reducing Toxic Threats initiative