CHEMICAL LIVES

BY C.D. Stelzer

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Feb. 14, 1996

One of the most disturbing scientific debates to have
resurfaced lately is over the decline in male sperm
counts. Studies indicate a drastic reduction in healthy
sperm in the last two generation. In 1992, A Danish
researcher  estimated that sperm counts throughout the
world went down 42 percent since 1940. Some scientists,
including those at the EPA, suspect that dioxin and PCBs
may be at least partially responsible.       
     Perhaps most germane to Times Beach and the hazard
waste situation in Missouri, however, is the close
relationship PCBs share with dioxin. Evidence suggests
that small amounts of dioxins and dibenzofurans, a
related chemical, can actually be created inadvertently
during the manufacturing of PCBs. More important, as PCB
oil ages and begins to breakdown, the concentrations of
dioxin-like chemicals increase, according to authorities
on the subject.  
     The rule of thumb is the more chlorinated the PCBs,
the more toxic the contaminated soil will become with
dioxin-like chemicals as it ages, says Tom Gasiewisz, a
University of Rochester professor of environmental
medicine.  The scientist also offers another caveat: "In
some of those earlier days, they didn't have an isomer
specific analysis on ... dioxins and furans present in
those formulations. ... Although the compounds might
have been suspected to be there, the exact isomer
concentrations were probably unknown," says Gasiewisz.
In laymen's terms, this means the contents of some PCBs
are uncertain.
     The effects of exposure to the chemical is less of
an enigma, however. Although not as potent as dioxin,
PCBs, nevertheless, pose many of the same health risks.
In 1991, the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services labeled PCBs carcinogenic. Exposure to the
chemical has also been linked to  birth defects,
immunological problems and reproductive disorders. If
all this weren't enough, the federal Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) warns that PCBs
don't burn easily. The chemical's resistance to heat is
one of the reasons they were formerly used as an
insulators in electrical transformers.   
     PCBS were first commercially produced in the United
States by the Swann Chemical Co. in 1929. But for
decades thereafter Monsanto Chemical Co. exclusively
manufactured PCBs up until 1977, when production stopped
shortly before the federal government banned the
chemical as apart of the Toxic Substances and Control
Act (TSCA).  Monsanto produced PCBs at its  W. G.
Krummrich plant in Sauget, Ill. and at another facility
in Anniston, Ala. 
     An industry source estimates more than one billion
pounds of the indestructible chemical were manufactured
since 1929.  Hundreds of millions of  pounds have since
been indiscriminately dumped, according to EPA
estimates. As a result, ground and surface waters have
been permanently polluted from coast to coast.  
     PCBs are part of a family of more than 200
different related chemical compounds, which range from
light oily fluids to heavy greasy substances. For
decades prior to their prohibition, they were used as
insulators in electrical transformers and capacitators.
Many other products once contained PCBs, including:
plastics, adhesives, paints, varnishes, pesticides,
carbonless copying paper, newsprint, fluorescent light
ballasts and caulking compounds. 
     Concerns about PCBs developed in 1964, after a
Swedish scientist became aware of their persistent
nature and tendency to accumulate in higher
concentrations as they moved up the food chain. Four
years later,  a PCB leak at a rice factory in Japan
resulted in the best documented case of human exposure.
Those who ate the contaminated rice were later found to
be 15 times more likely to contract liver cancer.  
                              

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