Back in 1979, the U.S. government banned Polychlorinated Biphenyls [PCBs] after adverse health effects, including cancer, heart disease, and adrenal and thyroid problems, were linked to the chemical compound. Three-and-a-half decades later it turns out that PCBs are even worse than scientists initially thought, lingering in air, water, and soil and continuing to pollute the environment.
Since PCBs don’t degrade naturally, scientists have concluded that they can persist for decades and accumulate in human and animal tissue. Worse, the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment, a four-year survey conducted by the National Institutes for Health — study results were published in Environmental Health Perspectives in late 2012 — has conclusively tied them to infertility.
Dr. Peter deFur is an environmental consultant and president of Environmental Stewardship Concepts LLC, a Richmond, Virginia company that assists community groups, government agencies, and businesses with environmental clean-up. He notes that, “every state has a PCB contamination problem from a river, an old Superfund site, or buildings that were constructed before the PCB ban went into effect. Most of us carry some body burden of these chemicals, substances that we now know impact pregnancy as well as the brain growth and development of fetuses and children.”
According to the National Institutes for Health, between 20 and 37 percent of women under the age of 30 become pregnant within three months of trying to conceive. If, however, a year goes by and pregnancy does not occur — or the woman has miscarried at least twice — the couple is classified as having a fertility problem. Approximately 15 percent of those trying to reproduce fall into this category. Experts state that there are many possible reasons for this — from endometriosis or polycystic ovaries in women to low sperm count in men — nonetheless, the discovery that PCBs contribute to infertility was a startling revelation since the toxin is so ubiquitous.
DeFur reports that hundreds of rivers throughout the U.S. are polluted by PCBs and quickly rattles off a roster of waterways that need prompt or continued attention: The Housatonic, Hudson, James, Neuse, Potomac, and Saginaw, among them. At the same time, he cautions that launching a clean-up effort is not as simple as it sounds. “PCBs can be moved into the air by activity of the sun — warming them — or stirring them up during dredging,” he says. “This means that the people doing the clean-up always need to be sure to take measures, including regular checks of air quality, so that human and animal exposure is not increased.”
Waterways, deFur continues, are just one source of PCB contamination. From the early 1950s until 1979, he continues, PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in electrical transformers and as non-flammable insulators. They were also used in oil-based paint, caulking, plastic, floor finishes, adhesives, and in the ballasts of fluorescent light fixtures.