CHRISTINE WHITMAN'S FOLLY
Chairman, Accuracy in Media
December 6, 2001
On December 4, the Environmental Protection Agency,
now headed by Christine Todd Whitman, ordered General Electric to dredge or
pay for the dredging of 40 miles of the upper Hudson River at an estimated cost
of half a billion dollars. The purpose of the dredging is to remove some 2.65
million cubic yards of sediment containing PCBs, one of the first targets in
the chemophobe craze that swept America in the 1970s.
If you want to contribute with our work, sending no money,
PCB is the common name for a group of over 200 chemical compounds that are non-flammable
when subjected to high temperatures. They range from light and oily to compounds
with the consistency of heavy grease or wax. Over 70 years ago, they were found
to be excellent lubricants and coolants for transformers and other electrical
equipment. They were so successful in reducing fire hazards that many city codes
were changed over the years to require that they be used in place of mineral
oil in transformers.
Manufacturers that used PCBs, like General Electric, dumped PCB waste into waterways
for years. Concentrations began turning up in fish, but no adverse health effects
attributed to them were noticed until 1968, when some 1,300 Japanese became
ill after using cooking oil that had been contaminated by leakage from an air
conditioning system. The victims suffered nausea, fatigue, swelling of the extremities,
skin rashes and liver disorders.
The first press reports said the contaminant was PCBs, but further research
found that subjecting the PCBs to extremely high temperatures had changed them
from polychlorinated biphenyls into PCDFs, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, which
are very toxic. In the wake of the Japanese incident, the EPA ordered animal
tests to determine if PCBs were carcinogenic. The tests involved feeding rats
very large doses of a PCB made by Monsanto called Aroclor 1260. It had a chlorine
content of 60 percent, which is relatively high. It and other highly-chlorinated
PCBs accounted for about 12% of the PCBs sold in the U.S. The tests resulted
in cancerous tumors of the liver.
This did not constitute proof that eating fish with traces of PCBs would cause
cancer in human beings, but that was the interpretation radical environmentalists
placed upon the findings. Legislation was pushed through Congress that called
for an immediate ban on PCBs, which proved to be impossible given their widespread
use in electrical systems throughout the country. The industry first had to
develop substitutes for PCBs. In the meantime, the assumption that PCBs posed
a cancer risk for humans was seriously challenged.
Thousands of industrial workers had been exposed to high concentrations of PCBs
on their jobs during the 1950s through the 1970s. Many of them routinely used
PCBs to clean grease off their hands. In 1981, an OSHA epidemiological study
of 2,500 workers, half of whom had been exposed to PCBs for over 17 years, found
that the number of deaths from cancer was 10 percent lower than what would be
expected for a group with the same profile in the general population. There
was no relationship between the length of time in PCB- exposed jobs and the
risk of death due to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurological manifestations
or from any other causes.
A 1984 German study found that rats given high daily doses of PCBs with a 60%
chlorine content developed liver tumors in their old age, the same result obtained
by EPA. But the Germans also tested PCBs with a chlorine content of 42% and
found that the rats had fewer total cancers than a control group which was not
exposed to any PCBs. In 1991, the Institute for Evaluating Health Risks, IEHR,
reconstructed five rat tests that led to the ban. It found that PCBs with chlorine
content below 60% showed no "statistically significant elevations of liver
tumors" in rats. The IEHR study, signed by former EPA acting administrator
John A. Moore, stated, "The current cancer policy is clearly overstating
the cancer risks associated with many exposures to PCBs in the environment."
EPA's regulatory decisions, he said, are causing "a major economic impact
for, at best, trivial public health gain."
Environmentalists are fighting plans to dredge the Delaware River to deepen
it. They say it will release pollutants that are now covered by sediment and
that the disposal sites can be a source of pollution for the river in the future.
PCB levels in upper Hudson River water have declined 90 percent since 1977.
It is now safe for swimming and as a source of treated drinking water. Dredging
the Hudson will be half a billion dollars down the drain for not even a trivial
public health gain.
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