Researchers in Washington have detected PCBs in 72 percent of tested products, including food packaging, paints and newspapers.
Prior to 1979, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were commonly used in a range of products as flame retardants. However, their toxic properties eventually led to them being banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency categorizes PCBs under the PBT grouping of chemicals: “Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic.” These chemicals are dangerous because they do not naturally break down, even after being absorbed into animals and plants. Over time, enough exposure to PBTs builds up a level of concentration that can be hazardous and even fatal. Humans are just as susceptible to PBT exposure, and can absorb them via indoor pollution, food and swimming in contaminated waters.
Though PCBs have been banned for 35 years, they can be unintentionally created through chemical processes in industrial manufacturing. After the majority of waterways in Washington tested positive for PCBs, the state’s Department of Ecology began a study to find the source of the contamination.
The team analyzed 68 popular consumer products and found that 72 percent of the materials tested positive for PCBs. The concentrations ranged from one to 45 parts per billion. This does not sound like much – the EPA actually exempts unintentionally-created PCBs in concentrations of 50 parts per million or lower – but by their nature PCBs accumulate over time in water, in soil, in the food chain and in human beings. The EPA has acknowledged the shortcomings of its PCB regulation and have stated that a more current review is in order, but have yet to take decisive action.
High concentrations of PCBs in humans can lead to endocrine disruption, weakened immune systems and cancer. Infants can also be exposed to PCBs through their mothers’ breast milk, leading to decreased motor skills and other neurodevelopmental problems.