Electrical use ends October this year

PCBs condemned to death

RG Liberty


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

The reason 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 fire.

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 extreme heat.

"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 equipment."


Public pressure can go too far

RG Liberty

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 to worry.

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!


A bad penny

RG Liberty

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 it.

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 elements.

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.