May 3, 2015

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Why PCBs are Dangerous to the Environment

In 1979, the United States federal government issued a ban for the use and manufacture of a group of chemical substances called polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. This was due to reports indicating that PCBs have been polluting ecological life in areas within and around manufacturing and dumping sites. Among the areas severely affected by PCB pollution is Anniston, Alabama—a small, rural city where the main PCBs producer Monsanto had set up a manufacturing plant.

While Mosanto had stopped production of PCBs two years before the government-imposed ban, documents and reports that surfaced in the following years showed that the company had been well aware of the devastating environmental effects caused by their product. Internal memos pointed to independent studies that showed toxic Monsanto PCBs causing severe pollution in Anniston lakes and creeks. One study, conducted by scientists from Mississipi State University in 1966, noted how the marine life in Snow Creek has been devastated by PCB pollution: “All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10 seconds and all were dead in 3 1/2 minutes.”

These results—along with results from other scientific studies conducted in the years following the ban on PCBs—show just how dangerous the toxic chemical substances are to the environment. The danger of PCBs lie in the fact that these chemicals do not easily break down and can remain in the environment for extremely long periods of time. After contaminating air, water, and soil, PCB contamination can spread by affecting wildlife and moving up through the natural food chain. In particular, PCBs can be taken up by small fishes living in the water then spread to larger animals who consume these smaller organisms as food. When this happens, the level of PCB tends to accumulate and become higher and higher through the food chain. As such, predators can be exposed to PCB levels that are thousands of times higher than what’s present in the water.

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