Guest Column: PCBs in our environment and food

Guest Column: PCBs in our environment and food

By Quinton Hamp

Personally, I wasn’t surprised to see the Rock River on the impaired waters list. After all of the Superfund projects that have sprung up in Rockford, I had long doubted the Rock’s water quality. However, I was surprised to see the Kishwaukee and the Pecatonica take their respective places beside the Rock on the dunce’s bench.

These new designations seem to be raising questions that no one is answering. Many of us realize that PCBs, the main pollutants, are dangerous, but at the same time the authorities almost encourage continued fishing of the impaired rivers. Even the DNR’s fishing advisory, “Illinois Fish and Your Health”, counters the pollution warnings by listing the many nutritional values of fish meat5. Just how dangerous arc PCBs? And, more exactly: Is it safe to eat our local fish?

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are created by heating benzene, a byproduct of gasoline, and combining it with chlorine gas, to create a total of 209 related compounds1. As a rule, PCBs are a stable, non-soluble, oily liquid, which absorbs intense heat but does not conduct electricity. It was these properties which made it popular as a coolant for electrical transformers.

Polychiorinated Biphenyls came into widespread use in the 1930s, and were only phased out when the EPA outlawed them in 1979. During the period of their use, they became extremely popular, finding their way into our environment through lubricants, insecticides, paints, varnishes, and even fluorescent lights. By the 1960s, PCBs had begun to show up in environmental tests. Subsequent studies in the 1970s showed that PCBs readily cause tumors and liver diseases in mice. Workers who were constantly exposed to this chemical began showing signs of chloracne, a skin condition, and a few even died of liver failure. In 1979 the EPA officially banned PCB, marking the beginning of a long recovery process for the environment.

Today, 25 years later, we still bear the marks of PCBs as they creep silently through the food chain. In humans, it is usually stored in the body’s fat reserves, where it can harm the body over a lifetime. New studies continue to illuminate the startling effects of PCBs on the human body. In 1994, a study led by Nathaniel Rothman of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, linked PCBs to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma2. Additionally, studies have confirmed that PCBs can affect thc liver, the stomach, and the thyroid; wreak havoc on the immune system and cause hormonal system imbalance.

Most frightening are the effects it can have on unborn and young children. A study, conducted by Joseph and Sandra Jacobsen at Wayne State University, found that children with greater exposure were three times more likely by age 11 to test lower on I.Q. scores than their peers3. Other studies have shown a possible link between PCBs and disorders such as ADHD.

Unfortunately, PCB contamination is found not only in fish, but also in other foods, including baby food. According to Consumer Reports of June 1998, meat baby foods, such as those made by Gerber, Beech-Nut and Heinz, have been found to contain dioxins, PCBs and related compounds. In fact, eating just 2.5 ounces (one jar) would result in 100 times the EPA’s acceptable limit for dioxins5.

It’s for each to choose whether he wants to eat from our local rivers. While the chances of dying from consuming local fish are practically non-existant, the impact of our eating choices on future generations calls for some responsible consideration. Personally, I will be strictly catch and release. Would somebody please pass me an organic carrot?

1. Science News Online (

2. Science News Online “PCBs linked to rise in lymph cancers” (

3., March 29,2002 ( vd291478.htm)

4. “Illinois Fish and Your Health” (

5. Chemicals Weapons Working Group “Incineration and Food – Emissions from the stacks reach YOUR grocciy sacks!” (

Quinton Hamp is a home-schooled student with an interest in environmental and health issues. He has participated in the Illinois RiverWatch program.

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