News & Bulletins

Fact Sheet 6
PCB Contamination Of The Hudson
A Health Hazard?

PCBs in the Hudson:

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a class of 209 industrial
chemicals that are very persistent environmental contaminants.  From
1947 to 1977, two General Electric plants (Fort Edward and Hudson
Falls, New York), discharged from 500,000 to 1.5 million pounds of PCBs
into the Hudson.  Over 300,000 pounds remain concentrated in bottom
sediments of the river today.  The spread of PCBs throughout the Hudson
River and the food chain which it supports has created one of the most
extensive hazardous waste problems in the nation.

What are the health effects of exposure to PCBs?

Exposure to PCBs has been linked to a variety of adverse health
effects.  For example, in laboratory animals PCBs have been shown to
cause cancer, liver damage, reproductive impairments and immune system
damage.  Exposure has also been linked to behavioral damage and
neurological damage.

Outside the lab, occupational exposure studies provide evidence that
PCBs are dangerous to human health.  Workers at capacitor manufacturing
facilities in New York and Massachusetts showed increased deaths as a
result of specific cancers.  Although overall mortality rates were not
elevated, a statistically significant excess of deaths due to liver and
biliary tract cancers was observed.  Recently, the EPA classified PCBs
as a known carcinogen.

Current evidence has shown PCB exposure to pose multigenerational
impacts.  For example, in Michigan children whose mothers ate
PCB-contaminated fish suffered from learning disorders, developmental
disabilities and lower birth weights.  In Taiwan, mothers who ate rice
oil contaminated with PCBs bore children with a variety of birth
defects: skin discoloration, abnormal fingernails, swollen gums with
teeth that chipped easily, lower birth weights and smaller general
size.  Finally, Eskimo infants which were fed PCB-contaminated breast
milk for as little as four to five months exhibited observable
developmental and behavioral defects.  These and other studies suggest
that at greatest risk are not the mothers who may have been exposed to
PCBs, but their unborn and/or nursing children.

How can people be exposed to PCBs?

Small amounts of PCBs are taken up by microscopic organisms in the
riverbed and passed up through the food chain.  PCBs accumulate in
microorganisms, which are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by big
fish, which are eaten by bigger fish still; and so on up the food
chain.  The process by which PCBs concentrate at higher and higher
levels up the food chain is called biomagnification, or

After conducting a number of research projects, Dr. Harold Humphrey of
the Center for Environmental Health Science in Michigan determined that
although humans can be exposed to PCBs in a variety of ways, eating
contaminated fish is by far the most potent route of human exposure,
with exposure levels at about 4,000 times greater than from breathing
(contaminated air) or drinking (contaminated water)."

Once ingested, PCBs are not easily removed from the body.  PCBs
concentrate in fatty tissues and persist at elevated levels in the
bloodstream, thereby allowing continuous internal exposures.  Dr.
Humphrey found a direct correlation between the frequency and amount of
contaminated fish eaten by humans and the presence and accumulation of
PCBs to elevated levels in human blood serum.

Are PCB levels in Hudson River fish considered unsafe?

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a standard of 2
parts per million (ppm) in fish flesh as a safe level for human
exposure to PCBs.  However, PCB levels in many Hudson River fish exceed
2 ppm.  As a result, the state has issued a ban on all commercial
fisheries and only allows catch and release for recreational fishing in
the upper Hudson, from Hudson Falls to the Troy Dam.  In addition, the
New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) issues advisories warning
recreational anglers to limit their consumption of many Hudson River
fish. August 6, 1995 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first
announcement by NYS that most Hudson River fish were unsafe for human
consumption because of PCB contamination.  Similar health advisories
have been issued in New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The most important health advisory applies to the most sensitive
population: Women of child-bearing age and children under the age of
fifteen are advised to eat none of all Hudson River fish, including
American Shad.  All other individuals are advised to eat no more than
one meal per week of many species (like yellow perch), and no more than
one meal per month of others (like striped bass).

  Advisories for American Shad: Shad are found in the Hudson River only
  for a short time each spring, when they return to the river to spawn.
  Because spawning shad eat very little, they do not accumulate
  significant amounts of PCBs in their meat or roe.  However, DOH
  advises women of child-bearing age and children under the age of
  fifteen to eat no Hudson River fish, including American shad.

Do existing fishery restrictions and advisories adequately protect human

While certainly important, present health advisories are not sufficient
to protect human health. State advisories for Hudson River fish are
based on PCB tolerance levels which are set by FDA. There is no
concrete assurance that the standard adopted for an action level is
sufficiently protective, primarily because there is a lack of clearly
defined criteria to assess the experimental data which is available.

In developing tolerance levels, FDA considers both human health impacts
and economic impacts, which in this case, include impacts on commercial
fisheries.  Combining human health and economic impacts results in
standards which are less protective of human health.  In addition,
levels are set for single substances and do not anticipate the presence
of other contaminants, which is often the case.

Finally, FDA tolerance levels assume an average levels of fish
consumption.  Unfortunately, these levels do not adequately protect
individuals who eat greater than average amounts of contaminated fish. 
For example, a recent health risk assessment conducted by the NYS DOH
shows that recreational fishermen who eat a large amount of fish with 5
ppm PCB levels (which is comparable to levels in many Hudson River
fish), have a risk of one additional cancer for every ten people
exposed at this level over their lifetime.

There is no guaranteed safe level of exposure to known carcinogens. As
far as scientists know, the risk of cancer decreases as exposure to the
carcinogen decreases.  However, the danger may not be completely
eliminated until the possibility of exposure to the carcinogen is
eliminated altogether.

Despite commercial fishery closures and recreational fishery health
advisories, exposure to PCB-contaminated Hudson River fish continues to
occur.  The primary distribution of health advisories in New York State
is through publication in recreational fishing licenses. However,
because licenses are not required on the main stem of the Hudson or in
marine waters, many recreational anglers never receive health

Clearwater's 1993 Hudson River Angler Survey found that of 332 anglers,
interviewed at twenty popular fishing spots, less than half (48%)
reported being aware of health advisories.  The Survey found that 72%
either ate their catch or gave it away to others whom they believed
were eating it. In addition, socio-economic factors were found to be
significant in influencing fish consumption: more low-income anglers
were found to eat their catch, with 36% indicating consumption to be
among the primary reasons they fish.

What can be done to reduce the risk of exposure to PCBs?

As long as PCBs remain in the river, the danger of exposure will remain
as well.  Despite commercial fishery closures and recreational health
advisories, people continue to eat contaminated fish. Removing
contaminated sediments from the river is the surest way to reduce PCB
levels in fish, and in the people who eat Hudson River fish.

The NYS DEC is investigating a long-term solution to PCB-contamination
at GE's facilities in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. This will include
stopping ongoing migration of PCBs to the Hudson River and remediating
both upland sites.  At the same time, EPA continues to conduct a
Superfund Reassessment of PCB-contaminated sediments.  The culmination
of this process will result in a Record of Decision (expected out in
winter 1998), which may recommend dredging contaminated sediments for
treatment and destruction.

What can you do to help?

PCBs will not be removed from the Hudson River without two key things:
political will and money.  You can help by writing to Governor George
Pataki and urging him to:

 Order an immediate cleanup of PCBs at GE's plants and in the river.
 Require GE, the primary polluter, to pay for a comprehensive cleanup.
 Pursue a natural resource damage claim to recover for injuries to
   natural resources (like fish populations), which will persist even
   after a cleanup is completed.

Write Governor Pataki at:
  Executive Chamber
  State Capitol
  Albany, NY  12224

For more information on PCB contamination of the Hudson River, including
available cleanup technologies, contact Clearwater's Environmental
Action Program at:  112 Market Street, Poughkeepsie, New York 12601
Phone: 845-454-7673

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Updated 4/7/97