PCBs are still finding their way into consumer products

The Washington State Department of Ecology has recently published a study evaluating the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in general consumer products. PCBs are persistent in the environment, build up in the food chain, and, at elevated levels, can cause adverse health effects in humans and wildlife including cancer and harm to immune, nervous, and reproductive systems. PCBs disrupt thyroid hormone levels in animals and humans, hindering growth and development.

Among the findings of the study are: 

  • PCBs are found in consumer products and can enter the environment in significant concentrations through water and air discharges. Many of these products contain PCBs as an impurity created during production processes
  • PCBs may affect people directly through contact with consumer products.
  • Almost all paint and colorant samples tested contained one or more PCBs at detectable levels. Diarylide yellow comprises approximately 25% of the 250 million tons of organic pigments produced yearly worldwide and testing has shown PCBs (and especially PCB-11) are produced during its manufacture. PCB-11 is part of the structure of diarylide yellow and is produced either as a byproduct during the manufacturing process or results from degradation of the pigment.
  • Higher molecular weight PCBs are produced as byproducts from one of the common manufacturing processes of the inorganic pigment titanium dioxide.
  • Packaging and paper products sampled contained PCBs, particularly PCB-11.
  • Sealants with high levels of PCBs have been found at varying levels in buildings from about 1950 to 1980 in several studies in the U.S. and other countries. Currently, caulks for sale do not appear to be a significant PCB source. PCB-11 was found in one caulk that changed from pink to white during curing. 
  • Additional testing of other products such as clothing, cosmetics, soaps and hand sanitizers and household cleaning products is needed to evaluate other potential PCB sources. Products containing yellow, green and white pigments particularly warrant additional sampling.

In response to concern about PCBs in consumer products, the State of Washington has produced a draft PCB action plan. Among the elements of the plan are:

  • Survey and assess PCB-containing lamp ballasts in schools and other public buildings. Encourage replacement with more energy efficient PCB-free fixtures with a goal of removing remaining PCBs lamp ballasts from schools and other publically owned buildings.
  • Develop and promote Best Management Practices for containment of PCB-containing materials in buildings currently in use and those slated for demolition in order to reduce exposure to people from PCBs in historic building materials and prevent PCBs in building materials from getting into stormwater.
  • Assess schools and other public buildings for the presence of PCB-containing building materials in order to reduce children’s exposure to PCB-containing building materials in schools and prevent PCBs in building materials from getting into stormwater.
  • Learn more about what products contain PCBs and promote the use of processes that don’t inadvertently generate PCBs.
  • Survey owners of historic electrical equipment to confirm estimates of EPA-regulated electrical equipment with more than 500 parts per million (ppm) PCBs, learn what is known about electrical equipment with PCBs greater than 2ppm, and find out when such electrical equipment is estimated to be replaced.
  • Expand environmental monitoring to identify any new areas requiring cleanup. Find areas with highly concentrated PCBs and clean them up to prevent the wider release of PCBs. Find about more about distribution of PCBs to prioritize future actions. 
  • Conduct a public educational campaign to provide information to residents to reduce exposure and raise awareness of the problems associated with current and past production of PCBs.

The 34 page report Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in General Consumer Products, containing details of the test results, is available at https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/publications/1404035.pdf

The Washington State Draft PCB Chemical Action Plan is available at https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/publications/1407024.pdf

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