Electrical use ends October this
condemned to death
The threat of polychlorinated
biphenyl's (PCBs) contamination was swiftly put to rest last month
with the banning by the federal government of the chemical for use
In the electrical contracting Industry.
Although the material, used
in various industries for nearly four decades, was known to cause
negative reactions in humans after findings in 1973, it took public
opinion to have the chemical banned across the board. Since PCBs
are non-biodegradable they were previously banned from other industrial
uses for environmental reasons.
The ban on electrical use of
the substance will take effect October 1, 1978, but the purchase
of PCBs for capacitors and transformers was stopped in May, 1977.
Ontario Hydro is now cataloguing PCB programs and it is required
by law to report any installations using them.
Some contractors don't believe PCBs are a hazard
. . . The Government disagrees and cites test results
for the cataloguing is to insure safe disposal of the chemical when
equipment containing it has outlived its usefulness. The disposal
is handled in Ontario by D&D Disposal Ltd., St. Catharine's.
PCBs, previously thought to be noncombustible, can safely be broken
down into their elements at a temperature of 1,650'C.
Now that PCBs are banned, industry
will have to develop substitutes that will serve the same purpose
at a comparable cost. Mike Freeborn, Manager of Product Development,
Sprague Electric of Canada, says Sprague is, the only company manufacturing
and marketing a PCB-free capacitor - so far. The chemical substitute
used in this case is called di-isononylphthalate, with the less
difficult trade name, Eccol.
Mike Mackrory of Westinghouse
says that company's last shipment of PCB-containing equipment went
to the Nelson River Project in Manitoba in 1976. By the end of April,
1978 Westinghouse will market its own substitute with the trade
name, Wenicol. Canadian General Electric will be marketing its substitute
at the same time.
There are a number of substitutes
being tested by Ontario Hydro and individual contractors in the
industry, one with a silicone base. Of these, Freeborn says Sprague
has the least flammable.
The question of flammability
may have been the prime concern of government for the use of these
substitutes, suggests Freeborn. The chemicals had to be installed
outdoors or in concrete vaults. This created a problem for many
contractors and manufacturers.
How dangerous are PCBs really?
Says Freeborn, "The safe level of exposure to PCBs is two parts
per billion - anything higher can be considered toxic." He
continues, "The body retains and assimilates PCBs, so even
at the safe level continued exposure can be harmful,. because there
is a buildup in the system."
Some contractors don't believe PCBs are a hazard.
They insist they've been working with the material for years and
have yet to feel any effects, nor have they seen any in their fellow
workers. The government disagrees and cites test results as evidence
of the potential harm the chemical can cause in some cases of exposure.
Studies have revealed symptoms of skin problems, eye irritation
and discharge, headaches, vomiting, fever, visual disturbances and
birth defects when the parent is exposed.
Under what circumstances would contractors or
maintenance personnel come into contact with PCBs on a dangerous
level? Freeborn states that PCBs are relatively harmless unless
the equipment containing them is ruptured or damaged in any way
resulting in a leak or spill of the substance in its viscose form,
or, as has been recently seen in Toronto on December 6, 1977, by
Freeborn admits such occurrences are rare, but,
when they should happen there are basic steps to follow to alleviate
the danger. "Sometimes a piece of equipment will arrive that
has been sent back by a customer because of damage. The equipment
can't be repaired if there is evidence of a PCBs leak, so it has
to be disposed of as soon as possible," he says.
"If it's a minor leak the portion of carton affected
is cut away and placed into a steel drum for pickup by D&D. If the
leak is extensive the entire piece of equipment is placed into a
drum for pickup and should there be a deposit of PCBs on the floor
it is wiped up using any volatile solvent. Rubber gloves are used
for protection and then the materials are disposed of along with
the defective piece."
The general feeling of contractors
Is one of relief. They say It's about time the hazards of PCBs were
realized and alternatives allowed.
Cecil Morris, Public Relations
for Ontario Hydro says, "We have for some' time had a strict set
of handling orders concerning PCBs, including the removal of earth
under a spill to prevent environmental contamination since PCBs
are not biodegradable on their own, but have to be broken down by
"In our large plants we use
reinforced steel under-pans to catch any leaks, steel dykes bolted
to the floor and polyethylene lined containers for storage of PCBs,"
he continues. "Since most PCBs are found in capacitors in these
plants and they are, fairly remote, there is no real danger to the
general public in case of mishap."
Morris explains Ontario Hydro
has never had a fire problem involving PCBs, but if there were,
the local fire department would immediately be made aware of the
added danger of possible contamination and safety equipment would
be used for protection, including self-contained breathing devices
in case of vaporization.
Will the substitutes be government
controlled? Morris says that although the government, both federal
and provincial, may not be breathing down the collective neck of
the industry during testing of new substitutes, "I imagine, in light
of the recent findings concerning PCBs toxicity, the substitutes
will necessarily be tested under much stricter conditions and the
government will have to be informed of any dangers in the new materials."
The general feeling of contractors
is one of relief. They say it's about time the hazards of PCBs were
realized and a workable alternative allowed to be used. Freeborn,
for, one, is confident the electrical contracting industry will
run more smoothly with the amendment banning PCBs, creating, "a
safe, sensible and sane code allowing the installation of non-PCBs
pressure can go too far
Things are getting out of hand concerning the
disposal of PCB wastes. What the general public doesn't realize
is that manufacturers and maintenance personnel are being made to
bear the brunt of squabbling over where to destroy the chemical.
While the fighting goes on, the stockpiles are growing. And that
is not necessary.
To date, the Ontario Environment Ministry has
no evidence that exposure to the substance has any real or lasting
effects an human beings. Tests have been conducted on rats and rhesus
monkeys to determine the potential danger to these animals, and
thereby determine if a threat exists to people.
These animals were exposed to high levels of PCB
contamination over a lengthy period. The test results showed enlargement
of the liver in the rats and defects of the reproductive organs
of the monkeys. The level of exposure to which these test animals
were subjected must be taken into consideration. Almost any substance,
in overly large doses, can be harmful to both animals and humans
alike. Expose a rat to massive quantities of what goes into Mom's
apple pie and the poor creature will probably keel over and die
on the spot!
There are, however, reported
cases of ill effects in some humans. An accidental contamination
of rice oil by PCB heat exchange fluid in Japan in 1968 resulted
in the so called Yusho disease. But this was because the substance
was taken internally. Deodorant is nice. On the other hand, it might
kill you if you eat it!
So, we know the chemical poses
a potential threat to the well being of the populace - if they are
directly exposed to it for a length of time. The truth is, they
are not exposed to PCB contamination unless they have been working
with it for a long time! There is nothing on which to base the assumption
that a casual passerby is in any danger of PCB contamination. If
the passerby wishes to go swimming in the stuff, he may have reason
We've established the necessity
of getting rid of PCB stockpiles across Ontario, and the rest of
the country, for that matter. However, the problem is where can
this be done, or, rather, where will the public allow it to be done?
The Ministry wants to use the St. Lawrence Cement
Company in Mississauga. An ideal location. The chemical can be safely
burned into nonexistence. By using the proposed cement kiln, the
government would have all its problems solved.
Building a new site somewhere in the remote reaches
of the province gives rise to a number of difficulties. Transportation
over tremendously long hauls, even in approved container vehicles,
extensively tested for safety, could pose some hazards. Accessibility
to such an out-of-the-way location, if one were to be found to the
satisfaction of the irrational few who feel doom is imminent (by
the mere presence of PCBs) may necessitate an airlift approach -
not so safe!
Using military bases as sites for disposal is
being discussed. The US currently has innumerable stockpiles of
chemical/ biological warfare weapons at various military installations
throughout that country These substances are infinitely more dangerous
than PCBs, but they are piled, nevertheless.
Suggesting disposal of PCBs at military bases
has the same result as the idea of the St. Lawrence Cement facility
- public outcry. Worse still, if we force the government to build
a disposal facility in that far away place acceptable to the public,
it would cost a good deal of money. Where will the government get
this money? From taxes - our taxes. We'll be protesting our way
into footing the very substantial bill! It doesn't seem smart on
our part, does it?
Misinformation from the mass media bombards the
public, risking hysteria and a tidal wave of fear. Given the facts,
the public might feel a little safer with what the Ontario Environment
Ministry has to say about the safe disposal of this waste. There
can be no absolute guarantee that during transport of the chemical
a freak accident cannot occur. This kind of standard could only
be a dream. There is some risk involved in the transportation, but,
since PCBs cannot stay in the factory forever, it's about time somebody
assumed that risk!
The US has closed its borders to exportation of
liquid and solid wastes of PCBs. In December of 1978, the federal
and provincial governments, the governments of Michigan and Minnesota
held their first informal meetings on the subject in Detroit, and
agreed to exchange information on disposal sites on both sides of
the border. Since the closing of the US border to our wastes, there
seems little hope of shuffling our problem south. We have to face
the problem at home.
All things considered, the benefits of burning
PCB wastes right here in Ontario, in the existing cement kiln, far
outweigh those of countless stockpiles dotting the Canadian map.
The provincial government is taking steps to ensure the disposal
of the substance at the suggested site. A hearing will be held in
March of this year to determine the feasibility of doing so.
To assuage public concern and radical outbursts,
a three-day 'open house' on the subject will have been held at various
locations by the time EC&MS is published. They were the forerunners
to the Hearing on March 6, 1979, and are an attempt to get us to
start thinking with our brains and not with our emotions. Let's
start using our brains!
You can't bury it under red tape. You can't ignore
it for very long before it rears its viscose head. You can't stockpile
it for too much longer. And apparently, you can't find a place to
dispose of it in Canada. Of course, we're talking about that much
debated substance PCBs'. Some have said it's not harmful - some
have said it is. Among those who agree it is a toxic substance are
the two levels of government in this country and countless persons
in the field who have had access to the chemical.
So, what's being done about getting rid of this
hazard? Well, there was a time when we could ship the stuff down
south of the border to have it burned into non-existence, but much
of that arrangement has changed. Now companies which are not allowed
to use the chemical in their capacitors and transformers are stockpiling
These companies are stockpiling PCBs in enclosed
containers until our government can devise a suitable means of disposing
of them. A site must be located, then an incinerator built and after
this is done the chemical can be safely broken down into harmless
However, there is a problem with finding a site.
The population of Canada has been reading newspaper reports of the
dangers of PCBs for so long that it has become linked with imminent
death, disease or a skin rash.
What are the alternatives? For one. PCBs can be
used in the making of cement. That's right - cement. It seems that
PCBs can be used as a supplementary fuel in the manufacture of cement
without contaminating the mixture. Government tests have been conducted
and have proven satisfactory with regard to the absorption of the
chemical and as a suitable additive to the cement itself.
Some can be washed down with solvents, then the
material used to wash them down becomes contaminated! This too has
to be sealed and stockpiled. The Ministry of the Environment should
go ahead with the installation of an incinerator before the stockpiles
outnumber the companies using them. If it doesn't the future will
have yet another nail driven into its already closing coffin.