PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are some of the most toxic and environmentally persistent chemicals ever created. PCBs (there are dozens of trade names for them) don’t break down, can remain for long periods cycling between air, water and soil, travel long distances and can be taken up into the bodies of small organisms and fish and concentrated up the food chain. The list of potential health problems for humans and animals is legion, including carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic effects.
PCBs get into the environment by incomplete burning, leaching from the soil, vapourizing from paints, coatings and plastics, by illegal dumping or by accident.
Prior to 1976, when they were banned in the USA, PCBs were used in products ranging from electrical transformers to light bulbs to paint, glue and cardboard. They were heralded for their ability to prevent electrical fires. The 1500 million pounds previously manufactured worked their way into many lakes--particularly the Great Lakes and the lakes of the northeastern U.S. Because PCBs became more concentrated as they worked their way up the food chain from fish to fish, the birds that ate the fish were significantly affected. It has been estimated, for instance, that fish-eating water birds in Lake Michigan can have PCB levels in their flesh 25 million times greater than the level of the surrounding lake water. Marine mammals have a rising quantity of PCBs in their blubber.
During a conference in Washington in 1998, aimed at restricting the production of toxic chemicals and persistent organic pollutants, Russian delegates confessed that Russia would not be able to comply with the pact as Russia still produces and uses PCBs, for example in the manufacture of transformers used on their power grid. Russia had previously assured European governments that new production of these chemicals had ceased. Negotiators accepted that Russia did not have the money to convert and allowed production to continue until 2005 and postponed the destruction of the last stocks until 2020. The fact that Russia produces, uses and perhaps exports PCBs which may be more dangerous to more people than plutonium has attracted little attention.
There must be a ban on PCB production worldwide, and provisions to ensure that current stocks are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.