Fact Sheet 3|
Frequently Asked Questions about PCBs
Q. What are PCB's? A. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a group of synthetic oil-like chemicals of the organochlorine family. Until their toxic nature was recognized and their use was banned in the 1970's, they were widely used as insulation in electrical equipment, particularly transformers. Reputable chemists have since concluded that "it was probably a 'mistake' ever to make or use PCBs". Q. Why are they dangerous? A. They are serious poisons which have been shown to cause damage to the reproductive, neurological and immune systems of wildlife and humans and are known to cause cancer. Specifically, because PCBs in the body mimic estrogen, women of child-bearing age and their infants are particularly susceptible to a variety of development and reproductive disorders. A National Academy of Sciences committee has stated that "PCBs pose the largest potential carcinogenic risk of any environmental contaminant for which measurements exist." Q. Where are they? A. There are numerous known contaminated sites around the U. S. Among the most dangerous of these, and of particular concern to residents of the Hudson Valley, are the forty "hot spots" in the Hudson River resulting from the dumping and leakage from General Electric plants at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls. There are PCBs in Hudson River water, biota, and sediment from Hudson Falls to New York City -- 200 miles that comprise the nation's largest Superfund site. Q. How did PCB's get into the water? A. During the period when they were used, General Electric legally dumped some 1.5 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, and unknowingly saturated the bedrock beneath both sites with at least that much again. Pure PCBs are oozing out of the bedrock to this day, constantly recontaminating the river. Q. Isn't this just a local problem? A. No. Once bottom-dwelling organisms absorb the material it is passed along up the food chain. Insoluble in water, PCBs are not readily excreted and remain, in ever-increasing concentrations, lodged in the fatty body tissues of fish as they grow. As one consequence, a once-thriving commercial fishing industry in the Hudson Valley, earning about $40 million annually, is now all but dead. Almost all of the river-dwelling fish are migratory, and the effects are such that the New York State Department of Health has issued an advisory telling people to severely limit their consumption, even of fish caught recreationally in the Hudson. Women of child-bearing age and children under fifteen are advised to eat none at all. Since subsistence fishing is common in the lower reaches of the river, there are particular concerns in these areas. Further, unless the contaminated material is removed, there is an ever-increasing risk that, while remaining dangerous, it will be dispersed gradually, carried downstream, and thus become irrecoverable. Q. Is the Hudson River really better now? A. Yes, but no thanks to GE. The Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972 in spite of GE´s strong opposition, required sewage treatment and minimization of industrial discharges. Standards for water quality have improved over the past few decades, but PCB´s have persisted and continue to poison fish, humans, and other organisms. Q. Is the Hudson really healing itself? A. Not when it comes to PCBs. PCBs don´t disappear, they just go somewhere else. Every day, and especially after heavy rain, PCBs move downstream into the ecosystem of the tidal Hudson, affecting the region´s fish, wildlife, and people. These PCBs enter the ocean and migrate throughout the world. Hudson River PCBs have been found in human and animal fat from the Arctic Circle. Q. Will dredging make the river worse, as GE claims? A. No. Many advances have been made in the last 15 years, and suction removal has been successfully employed at a number of other Superfund sites around the country. Often this has allowed fish consumption advisories to be lifted after just 2 or 3 years. Suction removal does not ³stir up² the river. On the contrary, the Eddy Pump, for example, works like a straw in a milkshake. Likened to ³liposuction,² this vacuum process leaves the river so undisturbed that operators can monitor the sediments with underwater cameras mounted at the base of their equipment. The dredged spoils enter a contained system of storage and transportation that is closed off from contact with the environment. Q. Was GE´s dumping of PCBs legal, as they always claim? A. Not always. For years the state DEC had been trying to get GE to reduce its staggering discharges, but GE threatened to leave the state, taking its jobs with it, and made DEC´s position politically untenable. GE had permits to pollute -- but frequently violated them. Q. Will the upstate economy be devastated by a cleanup, as GE claims? Hardly! If EPA calls for a cleanup of the PCB hot spots, GE will have to spend between $500 million and a billion dollars in the area. According to economists, each dollar spent in a community has a ³multiplier effect² of 8 dollars. The cleanup could employ hundreds of area residents, and bring billions of dollars into area businesses. Q. Will the cleanup be financed by my tax dollars? A. No. Superfund law stipulates that the polluter must pay. Why else would GE be fighting the cleanup so vigorously? Q. GE says it has spent $165 million cleaning up the river. Is this true? A. It has spent millions -- but only on its own property, and only after the DEC forced it to with Consent Orders. Also included in that number are lawyers, lobbyists, and PR agency fees for the fight against a cleanup. Watch for this number to start rising as the costs of GE´s $2 million-per-week ad campaign are included. Q. Won´t it be destructive to dredge the whole river? A. The whole river does not need dredging. In fact, only a few ³hot spots² must be dredged, with minimal impact even on the local biota. Q. According to GE, scientists now believe PCBs don´t hurt people. Is that true? A. No. GE paid a chemical-industry-funded research group to hire private detectives to find every GE employee who worked at or near the PCB plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. 1) Many of the people in the study worked there less than a year. 2) The study included thousands of people who never came in contact with PCBs. If every worker who did come in contact with PCBs died of cancer, the mortality would not have been `statistically significant.´ 3) The study did not look at the incidence of cancer; just mortality. Every single former GE employee could have been battling cancer for twenty years with no impact on this GE-funded study. Q. If we do what GE says, when will the fish be safe to eat again? A. 50 years!
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