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Communities across the country are up in arms over a government plan to truck nuclear waste to Nevada. The proposed route would pass through some of our largest cities, even though authorities shrug their shoulders when asked what to do in case of an accident. The nation's mayors are having none of it; they voted unanimously to ban the shipments until more is known about the risks.

The residents of Anniston, Alabama, know something about the risks of toxic waste; they've been living with it for many years. The only thing is, no one told them just how dangerous it is. Not the company that produced the poison...not the state or federal government that should have been looking out for their citizens.

PCBS — What Are They? What's Being Done About Them?

  • WHAT ARE PCBS?: PCBs are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals with the same basic chemical structure and similar physical properties ranging from oily liquids to waxy solids. Due to their non-flammability, chemical stability, high boiling point and electrical insulating properties, PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications including electrical, heat transfer, and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics and rubber products; in pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper and many other applications. More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States prior to cessation of production in 1977. (Source: The Environmental Protection Agency PCB Page)

  • PCB LAWS: PCBs are covered by "cradle to grave" (i.e., from manufacture to disposal) regulations. They were first regulated in the landmark legislation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (along with 75,000 other industrial chemicals). Today the major issue is not manufacture, but cleanup of spills and PCB disposal sites. There have been over 20 federal regulations governing the disposal of PCBs enacted since 1976, and three new rules are in the proposal stage.

    Q&A ON PCBS:
    Dr. Howard Frumkin is Director, Pediatric Environmental Health Speciality Unit and Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. He talked with NOW Producer Keith Brown about PCBs and environmental contamination.


    KEITH BROWN: What were the likely ways of the people of Anniston being contaminated?

    DR. FRUMKIN: There were a number of ways. One would be PCBs in the soil. If you have PCBs in the soil, in your home or playground, and if you have direct contact with the soil, and then have some hand-to-mouth behavior unconsciously, like we all do, you can ingest the PCBs. The second way would be food. To the extent that PCBs in the environment contaminated local food-- let's say, food being grown in a garden-- that would have been a good way to ingest it. And fish, in the streams downstream of Anniston, have been loaded with PCBs over the years, and anybody that ate lots of the fish had a great opportunity for exposure the extent that the environment's generally contaminated, you've got some PCBs in the air, you've got PCB contamination in the soil. It can be taken up by various fruits and vegetables, and it's a great way to get into a person.


    DR. FRUMKIN: Now, when PCBs get into the environment, the small organisms at the bottom of the food chain eat them. They get eaten by bigger organisms and the PCBs move up and bio-concentrate as you go up the food chain. One of the great places for that to happen is fish. Fish have a lot of fatty tissue. Fish feed extensively on small organisms in the waterway. So, whatever's in the waterway is going to end up in the fish and be concentrated there.


    KEITH BROWN: Help us to understand. Why wouldn't a yard next to a contaminated area be as toxic as one far away?

    DR. FRUMKIN: Not necessarily. One of the ironies about PCBs was that 20-30 years ago, people thought that they were perfectly good things to use for various purposes around the house. So, in industrial plants where PCBs were being made, sometimes the employees would take home a gallon of it, and use it to kill termites or to kill bugs, or to keep down the dust.

    And so, there were lots of homes where former employees lived where you can find very high levels along the foundation, where people poured the PCB oil, hoping to keep the termites away. And so, you might have individual properties that have extremely high levels. And those properties may be 10 miles away from the plant in the middle of a neighborhood that otherwise has low levels.


    DR. FRUMKIN: Don't eat the fish out of the water that's contaminated. Check carefully with local fruits and vegetables to be sure they're not contaminated. If you're working in your garden or working in the soil, be sure you wash carefully before you eat or smoke, and so on. So, it's really a different relationship with the environment. Where a lot of us may have grown up thinking the environment was a safe and congenial place to be, in a place like Anniston, you need to be careful and protect yourself.

    KEITH BROWN: If there's one piece of advice you would give to the people who are living there, what would it be?

    DR. FRUMKIN: Check your levels to see if you've been exposed. Protect yourself, so you don't get any further unnecessary exposure. Take good care of your health and, in particular, be aware of the early warning signs of some of the health problems that may be related to PCBs. And, enjoy your beautiful town.

    KEITH BROWN: What are some of the early warning signs?

    DR. FRUMKIN: With respect to the cancers, swollen lymph nodes, blood in the stool, coughing or bloody cough that doesn't go away. These are sort of the American Cancer Society's early warning signs of cancer. With respect to developmental abnormalities, a child that isn't quite reaching milestones on time, a child that's having behavioral difficulties or learning difficulties.

    Those may not be obvious, especially, you know, most of us that are parents have one or two children. We're not experts in knowing how quickly the child should be developing. And so, getting professional help at evaluating the kids at early stages and right on up through school is very appropriate. And if you find a particular problem in your child, a problem with language, a problem with hearing, a problem with word recognition, go ahead and get your child help for that.

    References: There are many laws and organizations designed to help keep you and your family safe. Keep an eye on your home and work environments at these web sites:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for making your work environment safe. You can find on their web site a list of precautions required by your industry as well as a complete database of American businesses cited for OSHA violations.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency — Be sure to note that under the Superfund Reauthorization Act, the EPA and local governments must maintain registries of industrial chemical releases.
  • monitors air and water quality and other environmental hazards zipcode by zipcode.
  • Use our local environment and health resources map
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