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The following article is reproduced without permission from Rachel's Environment & Health News, a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation:
Rachel's Environment and Health News

#327 - How We Got Here -- Part 1:
The History of
Chlorinated Diphenyl (PCB's)

by Peter Montague
Annapolis, Maryland
March 04, 1993
                 If you had to pick one chemical that best exemplified our
                 modern situation, it might well be PCB's (polychlorinated

                 PCB's were first manufactured commercially in 1929 by the
                 Swann Corporation, which later became part of Monsanto
                 Chemical Company of St. Louis, Missouri.[1] Monsanto then
                 licensed others to make PCB's and the product took off.
                 PCB's conduct heat very well, but do not conduct electricity,
                 and they do not burn easily. Furthermore, they do not change
                 chemically--they are stable--and they are not soluble in
                 water. Therefore they are ideal insulators in big electrical
                 transformers and capacitors (devices that store electricity).
                 As electricity came into widespread use during the first half
                 of this century, equipment suppliers like G.E. and
                 Westinghouse became major users of PCB's. 

                 Many of the characteristics that make PCB's ideal in industrial
                 applications create problems in the environment. Like many
                 other chlorinated hydrocarbons, PCB's are soluble in fat,
                 though not in water, so they tend to accumulate in living
                 things and to enter food webs, where they concentrate.
                 Larger, older predators tend to accumulate PCB's in their
                 fatty tissues, including their eggs (in the case of birds and
                 fish) and their milk (in the case of mammals). PCB's were
                 first recognized as an environmental problem in 1966 when a
                 Swedish researcher reported finding them in 200 pike from
                 all over Sweden, in other fish, and in an eagle.[2] For the
                 next decade, scientists accumulated information about PCB's,
                 finding them disrupting food webs all over the planet. By
                 1976, the destruction wrought by PCB's was so obvious and
                 so well understood that even the U.S. Congress
                 comprehended the danger and took action, outlawing the
                 manufacture, sale, and distribution of PCB's except in "totally
                 enclosed" systems. Between 1929 and 1989, total world
                 production of PCB's (excluding the Soviet Union) was 3.4
                 billion pounds, or about 57 million pounds per year. Even
                 after the U.S. banned PCBs in 1976, world production
                 continued at 36 million pounds per year from 1980-1984 and
                 22 million pounds per year, 1984- 1989. The end of PCB
                 production is still not in sight.[3] 

                 The whereabouts of 30 percent of all PCB's (roughly a billion
                 pounds) remains unknown. Another 30 percent reside in
                 landfills, in storage, or in the sediments of lakes, rivers, and
                 estuaries. Some 30 percent to 70 percent remain in use. The
                 characteristics of PCB's (their stability and their solubility in
                 fat) tend to move them into the oceans as time passes.
                 Nevertheless, it is estimated that only one percent of all PCB's
                 have, so far, reached the oceans.[3] 

                 The one percent that HAVE reached the oceans are causing
                 major problems. As noted above, PCB's tend to concentrate
                 in the food chain; the higher you are on the food chain, the
                 greater the concentration of PCB's. Large fish, and creatures
                 that eat large fish, tend to accumulate thousands of parts of
                 million (ppm) in their flesh. Furthermore, by a cruel twist of
                 fate, large birds and large marine mammals (seals, sea lions,
                 whales, and some dolphins) lack enzyme systems to
                 efficiently detoxify PCB's. As a result, PCB's build up in the
                 bodies of oceanic predators and are passed to their offspring
                 through eggs (in the case of fish and birds) and milk (in the
                 case of mammals). PCB's mimic hormones and are a
                 powerful disruptor of the endocrine system that governs
                 reproduction. Marine mammals are already having trouble
                 reproducing.[4] It is entirely possible that, as more PCB's
                 reach the oceans, all large mammals will disappear.[5] 

                 Humans, too, are contaminated by PCB's and are passing
                 these powerful toxins to their infant children through breast
                 milk. In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, PCB's are
                 present in breast milk at about 1 part per million (ppm) in the
                 milk fat. An infant drinking milk contaminated at this level
                 will take in a quantity of PCB's that is 5 times as high as the
                 recommended "allowable daily intake" for an adult, as
                 established by the World Health Organization.[6] 

                 Children exposed in the womb to PCB's at levels considered
                 "background levels" in the U.S. have been found to
                 experience hypotonia (loss of muscle tone) and hyporeflexia
                 (weakened reflexes) at birth, delays in psychomotor
                 development at ages 6 and 12 months, and diminished visual
                 recognition memory at 7 months.[7] 

                 How did we get here? 

                 In 1937--just eight years after Swann Chemical began
                 manufacturing PCB's in commercial quantities--the Harvard
                 School of Public Health hosted a one-day meeting on the
                 problem of "systemic effects" of certain chlorinated
                 hydrocarbons including "chlorinated diphenyl" (an early name
                 for PCB's).[8] The meeting was attended by representatives
                 from Monsanto, General Electric, the U.S. Public Health
                 Service, and the Halowax Corporation, among others. 

                 Before World War I, the Halowax Corporation began
                 manufacturing chlorinated naphthelenes as a coating for
                 electric wire and companies like General Electric began using
                 it. The president of Halowax, Sandford Brown, told the
                 meeting that they had observed no problems in their workers
                 until "the past 4 or 5 years... Then we come to the higher
                 stages [greater number of chlorine atoms in the mixture],
                 combined with chlorinated diphenyl and other products, and
                 suddenly this problem is presented to us."[8] 

                 By the mid-1930s, workers at Halowax and at G.E., and even
                 some of their customers, were breaking out with
                 chloracne--small pimples with dark pigmentation of the
                 exposed area, followed by blackheads and pustules. In 1936
                 three workers at the Halowax Company died, and Halowax
                 then hired Harvard University researchers to expose rats to
                 these chlorinated compounds, to see if they could discover
                 the underlying cause. The Harvard researchers made "a
                 number of estimates of chlorinated hydrocarbons in the air of
                 different factories," then designed experiments to expose rats
                 to similar levels. They reported that "the chlorinated diphenyl
                 is certainly capable of doing harm in very low concentrations
                 and is probably the most dangerous [of the chlorinated
                 hydrocarbons studied]."[8] And, they said, "These
                 experiments leave no doubt as to the possibility of systemic
                 effects from the chlorinated naphthalenes and chlorinated

                 From a brief report on the one-day conference, we can
                 gather that problems caused by PCB exposures were serious
                 and widely known. Mr. F.R. Kaimer, assistant manager of
                 General Electric's Wireworks at York, Pa., said, "It is only 1
                 1/2 years ago that we had in the neighborhood of 50 to 60
                 men afflicted with various degrees of this acne about which
                 you all know. Eight or ten of them were very severely
                 afflicted-- horrible specimens as far as their skin conditions
                 was concerned. One man died and the diagnosis may have
                 attributed his death to halowax vapors, but we are not sure
                 of that...."[8] 

                 G.E.'s medical director, Dr. B. L. Vosburgh of Schenectady,
                 N.Y., attended the meeting. He said, "About the time we
                 were having so much trouble at our York factory some of
                 our customers began complaining. We thought we were
                 having a hysteria of halowax mania throughout the country." 

                 Monsanto Chemical Company was represented at the
                 meeting by R. Emmett Kelly. Mr. Kelly told the meeting, "I
                 can't contribute anything to the laboratory studies, but there
                 has been quite a little human experimentation in the last
                 several years, especially at our plants where we have been
                 manufacturing this chlorinated diphenyl." He went on to
                 describe the results of Monsanto's human experiments: "A
                 more or less extensive series of skin eruptions which we
                 were never able to attribute as to cause, whether it was
                 impurity in the benzene we were using or to the chlorinated

                 G.E.'s F.R. Kaimer described the HUMAN reaction of G.E.
                 executives to the disfigurement and pain of G.E. workers
                 exposed to PCB's: "[W]e had 50 other men in very bad
                 condition as far as the acne was concerned. The first
                 reaction that several of our executives had was to throw it
                 out-- get it out of our plant. They didn't want anything like
                 that for treating wire. But that was easily said but not so
                 easily done. We might just as well have thrown our business
                 to the four winds and said, 'We'll close up,' because there
                 was no substitute and there is none today in spite of all the
                 efforts we have made through our own research laboratories
                 to find one."[8] And so G.E. executives--contrary to their
                 personal ethics--reached a business decision to continue
                 using PCB's. 

                 [To be concluded next week.] 

Back to the top

To read: 'How We Got Here -- Part 2:
Who Will Take Responsibility For PCB's', Click Here!

                 [1] Robert Risebrough and Virginia Brodine, "More Letters in
                 the Wind," in Sheldon Novick and Dorothy Cottrell, editors,
                 (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1971), pgs. 243-255. 

                 [2] Soren Jensen, "Report of a New Chemical Hazard," NEW
                 SCIENTIST Vol. 32 (1966), pg. 612. 

                 [3] Kristin Bryan Thomas and Theo Colborn,
                 "Organochlorine Endocrine Disruptors in Human Tissue," in
                 Theo Colborn and Coralie Clement, editors,
                 WILDLIFE/HUMAN CONNECTION [Advances in Modern
                 Environmental Toxicology Vol. XXI] (Princeton, N.J.:
                 Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., [1992).] pgs. 342-343. 

                 [4] See, for example, Robert L. DeLong and others,
                 "Premature Births in California Sea Lions: Association With
                 High Organochlorine Pollutant Residue Levels," SCIENCE
                 Vol. 181 (Sept. 21, 1973), pgs. 1168-1170; and Peter J. H.
                 Reijnders, "Reproductive failure in common seals feeding on
                 fish from polluted coastal waters," NATURE Vol. 304 (Dec.
                 4, 1986), pgs. [456-457.]456-457. 

                 [5] Shinsuke Tanabe, "PCB Problems in the Future: Foresight
                 from Current Knowledge," ENVIRONMENTAL
                 POLLUTION Vol. 50 (1988), pgs. 5-28. 

                 [6] Kristin Bryan Thomas and Theo Colborn,
                 "Organochlorine Endocrine Disruptors in Human Tissue," in
                 Theo Colborn and Coralie Clement, editors,
                 WILDLIFE/HUMAN CONNECTION [Advances in Modern
                 Environmental Toxicology Vol. XXI] (Princeton, N.J.:
                 Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., [1992).] pgs. 365-394.
                 For the comparison of U.S. breast-fed infants' intake vs.
                 World health Organization's standard for adults, see pg. 385. 

                 [7] Hugh A. Tilson and others, "Polychlorinated Biphenyls
                 and the Developing Nervous System: Cross-Species
                 Comparisons," NEUROTOXICOLOGY AND
                 TERATOLOGY Vol. 12 (1990), pgs. 239-248. 

                 [8] Cecil K. Drinker and others, "The Problem of Possible
                 Systemic Effects From Certain Chlorinated Hydrocarbons,"
                 TOXICOLOGY Vol. 19 (September, 1937), pgs. 283- 311.
                 Thanks to Bridget Barclay of the Hudson River Sloop
                 Clearwater for sending us this revealing article. Ms. Barclay
                 and her colleagues at Hudson Clearwater have worked
                 tirelessly for years to force a sensible cleanup of PCB's that
                 G.E. dumped, contaminating the length of the Hudson River;
                 Hudson Clearwater can be reached in Poughkeepsie at (914)

                 Descriptor terms: pcbs; ge; chlorine; sandford brown;
                 halowax corp; phs; westinghouse; electricity; monsanto;
                 wildlife; fish; mo; landfilling; oceans; swann corp.

                            Back to the top

To read: 'How We Got Here -- Part 2:
Who Will Take Responsibility For PCB's', Click Here!

Rachel's Environment & Health News is a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403. Fax (410) 263-8944; E-mail: Back issues available by E-mail; to get instructions, send Email to with the single word HELP in the message. Subscriptions are free. To subscribe, E-mail the words SUBSCRIBE RACHEL-NEWS YOUR FULL NAME to: NOTICE: Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic version of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS free of charge even though it costs our organization considerable time and money to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this service free. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or $500.00). Please send your tax- deductible contribution to: Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036. Please do not send credit card information via E-mail. For further information about making tax-deductible contributions to E.R.F. by credit card please phone us toll free at 1-888- 2RACHEL. --Peter Montague, Editor

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