PCBs are a family of industrial chemicals used in electrics, manufacturing and various other processes. Considered to be among the most hazardous of the environmental toxins known, they have been linked to cancer, hormonal effects, behavioural changes, and more. Despite the fact that they are artificial, they can be found in the environment, throughout the world. The reason is simple – this environmental toxin was used in a series of products before it was banned. Common to these products is the fact that they have now all been phased out or are in the process of being phased out. But industry and the authorities in most countries have shown considerable reluctance to properly dispose of products containing PCB.
Traced to the chemical giants
Pollution in Norway is a serious problem in many places. The authorities have banned the sale of fish from a number of fjord areas. Clean-up is essential but it is also expensive. The question of liability therefore arises. In the middle of the 1990s, the Norwegian research scientist Roger M. Konieczny began to develop a system which enabled the identification of the PCB pollution that can be found on the seabed along the Norwegian coast.
Konieczny had worked on the mapping of PCB pollution for many years, when a simple thought occurred to him: Can these PCB analyses be used for anything other than just describing the environmental situation in the area where the samples were taken? Is it possible to find out who produced the environmental toxin? Is there a 'fingerprint' at the pollution ‘crime scenes’ along the coast? The answer to all these questions was an emphatic yes.
The idea behind the so-called 'chemical fingerprinting' is simple: PCB is not an individual substance but a collective term for 209 different environmental toxins. PCB manufacturers produced a variety of PCB blends. Konieczny’s method is just as simple - if we know the composition of the blends, we can also locate them today.
'Using over twenty reports written from the middle of the 1970s up to the middle of the 1990s, I found out that about 20 blends of PCB had a clear pattern in terms of their composition. I was therefore able to create just as many standard profiles,' explains Konieczny.
These profiles mean that you could, for example, distinguish Monsanto’s Arochlor 1248 from Bayer’s Clophen A60.
Gives an indication of use
'Using these standard profiles, it is easy to determine the type of PCB in the sediments along the Norwegian coast. You present the composition of the PCB find graphically and compare it with each of the fingerprints. In some cases, the find will provide a perfect match with the fingerprint and you can then be virtually 100 percent certain that you have found that particular blend,' continues Konieczny.
The technique means that it is possible to determine the degree of chlorination of the PCB toxin which has ended up in the sediments in a particular area. If you know the degree of chlorination, you can also say something about the commercial area of use for the PCB. For example, low chlorinated PCB was used in hydraulic oils, whilst high chlorinated PCB’s were used in paint for ships.
'If you find high-chlorinated PCB close to a shipyard, the obvious conclusion would be that paint used on ships is the cause of the pollution. If the find also indicates a particular commercial blend, this can be linked to the paint production. In Norwegian territorial waters, we find large quantities of Clophen A60 near shipyards. Last year, we finally verified that this commercial blend was largely used in the production of paint for ships in Norway up until 1980', says Konieczny.
PCB pollution without control
Per-Erik Schulze from the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature has worked on the PCB problem for ten years. His work has concentrated on identifying which products contain PCB and where these products are today. Schulze’s findings are disturbing.
The Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature can document that PCB was used in a series of products:
'Small condensers was used in everything from washing machines to fluorescent tube fittings, glue used in double-glazing, concrete additives used for floors in bathrooms, kitchens, etc in Norwegian houses, ship paint. Several hundred tonnes of PCB were used in these products. And no one knew where the PCB toxin could be found today.'
This created the basis for 'The Great Toxin Hunt', a campaign that involved two boat trips along the Norwegian coast in 1998 and 1999. The intention was to do the job that the authorities had never done - to find the sources of the PCB pollution along the Norwegian coast. Schulze’s idea was simple - if PCB is found is the middle of a fjord, there must be one or more sources. If the same type of PCB is found offshore from a nearby shipyard, this is the probable source. His theory held. Almost all the samples taken during the trips showed higher PCB concentrations than the authorities had previously demonstrated.
Basis for a legal case
In 1999, the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature felt that the time had come to call in legal expertise. The solicitor Øivind Østberg was asked to produce a legal report on the PCB problem. Østberg, an experienced expert on environmental law, does not believe that the chemical giants will have a good case. PCB clean-ups on the seabed cost several million pounds and the Norwegian authorities and companies are therefore looking for someone to share the bill with. The principle of 'the polluter pays' is well established in Norway.
The question is therefore who the polluter is. Øivind Østberg considers that it is '…highly reasonable that companies which have produced, sold and earned income from PCB and which have been closer than anyone else to knowing about the harmful effects of the substance should contribute towards the cost of clean-up.'
One of Østberg’s main arguments against the chemical giants is the fact that the harmful effects of PCB have been known for a long time.
According to his legal report, the environmental toxin’s bio-accumulated properties have been known since the end of the 1960s. In Norway, the substance was included on the so-called 'Poison list' in 1971 and, in the following year, the use and import of PCB was banned in the neighbouring country of Sweden. Nevertheless, Bayer, Monsanto and Rhone Poulenc continued to produce PCB.
Østberg believes that the producers of PCB have a special responsibility for keeping themselves informed on research into their own products. Since this research was actually carried out in the 1960s, the companies must in other words have known of their environmental sins.
Another core argument is the inadequate provision of information to users of products containing PCB.
At the same time that Bayer knew that PCB was dangerous, they were selling the substance to Norwegian paint manufacturers with no mention of this. The shipyards were therefore unaware of the potential problems which could have led them to introduce preventative regulations for painting work. The result was pollution which could have been avoided.
A short time ago, the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature presented all the arguments to the authorities in Oslo. Norway’s capital is to build a new opera house on a site that was previously used by a large shipyard. The seabed in the area is heavily polluted by PCBs. The construction of the opera house will have to be postponed until the seabed has been cleaned up. This is expected to cost as much as £10m.
The Oslo harbour authorities and the environmental town council in Oslo were immediately interested in the information presented by the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature. The authorities are now considering legal action. Regardless of the outcome of any legal case, Bayer and Monsanto are unlikely to appreciate the negative publicity. If the Norwegian authorities win the case, the victory will be extremely important, not just for Norway. PCB pollution is after all a global problem.
Tom Erik Økland is an environmental editor and journalist.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000