Jess had an extra shot of espresso that she added to my morning coffee at Fuel, so that might be the cause of some of the extra passion I’m bringing to this issue. But maybe not.

PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls, a man-made chemical that was at once marvelous and diabolical. PCBs, a heavy oil that does not conduct electricity, were used in electrical transformers and capacitors, in carbonless paper, in fluorescent light fixtures, in caulking, and even for a brief while in chewing gum. Before 1929, there wasn’t a single PCB anywhere on Earth; today there is not a human being walking the Earth who doesn’t have PCBs in his or her body.

PCBs bioaccumulate, which is a fancy way of saying they move up the food chain, and concentrate with every step. They attach to sediment and the worms ingest them. The little fish eat the worms and the big fish eat the little fish. People eat the fish; the seals eat the fish; the polar bears eat the seals.

Many thousands of men and women went to work at GE where they were directly exposed to PCBs in the transformer and capacitor divisions. GE workers told me stories of wading through many inches of PCB oil on the factory floors, or of reaching into vats filled with oil to work on transformers. A kitty litter-like substance called Fuller’s Earth was spread on the floors to soak up the oil. Each day tractor-trailer loads of barrels of PCB oil-soaked Fuller’s Earth were trucked to the old Pittsfield City Dump – now the home of the softball complex and some of Downing Industrial Park. PCBs contaminated the extraordinary fresh water aquifer beneath what is now Pittsfield Sand and Gravel.

After the Dump was filled, they were dumped throughout the County. The Coltsville shopping centers were filled in. There was so much of this stuff, GE decided to give it away to workers to use as fill at home. The Allendale School and Dorothy Amos Children’s Park were built upon contaminated fill. There is a mountain of PCB waste within Hill 78 across from the Allendale School.

Oil continually seeped from the factory floors down the open drains to create underground lakes of PCB-contaminated oil across from the GE facility. The late Ed Bates, the former Manager of Power Transformer, estimated that more than a million and half pounds of PCBs went down the drain into Silver Lake and the Housatonic River.

In 1972, GE built its Thermal Oxidizer near the residential neighborhood on Newell Street and burned PCB oil every day until public pressure forced its closing in 1996.

Last week, one of America’s leading experts on the health effects of PCBs came to Lenox to talk about his most recent findings. The fact of the matter is the more we study PCBs, the more we learn about how very, very bad they are for humans and other living beings.

Dr. David Carpenter, a neurotoxicologist, is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology in the School of Public Health at State University of New York, Albany. 

He began by emphasizing that “PCBs are a total carcinogen … There are numbers of studies that have demonstrated specific kinds of cancer but from everything we know PCBs increase the risk of any kind of cancer.”

Dr. Carpenter has worked with the Akwesasne Mohawk Indians who for years ate PCB-contaminated fish. Mohawk children have significantly lower IQ levels. An earlier Japanese study found that IQ levels were anywhere from 5 to 10 points lower in PCB-exposed children. A similar study in Anniston, Alabama near the Monsanto plant found that exposed parents had similar IQ deficits.

Carpenter talked about another health danger: “PCBs look like thyroid hormones… which regulate our metabolism. If you have inadequate thyroid hormone during development you become a cretin and grossly mentally-retarded. If you have inadequate thyroid hormone as an adult you tend to be sleepy, dull, overweight, dry skin, no energy. If you have too much thyroid hormone you tend to be skinny, you can’t sleep at all, you’re hyper-active.” Adult Mohawks with the top third of PCB levels have a four and a half fold greater chance of having clinical hypo-thyroidism. This, according to Carpenter, is “highly statistically significant.”
As for cancer, a Maryland study found that people with high PCB levels had a much greater likelihood of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma. People with levels of 6.7 parts of PCBs per billion in the blood, had 2.7 times more likelihood of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma than people with much lower levels. People with levels of 10.1 parts per billion were 4.1 times more likely to develop lymphoma.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data about PCB blood levels in Berkshire County. But the little data we do have is very disturbing.

In 1997, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MPH) performed its Housatonic River Area Exposure Study. A total of 148 people were given blood tests. 75 people had PCB blood levels of between 0 and 4 ppb. 43 people had levels between 5 – 9 ppb. 21 had levels between 15 and 20 ppb. And 6 people had levels above 20 ppb. MPH then reassured the people of Pittsfield and those living along the Housatonic that anyone who had levels between 4 and 8 parts per billion of PCBs in their blood that they were just like everyone in the U.S. These levels, they said, were equivalent to background levels of PCBs in the blood, the level that everyone who hadn’t been exposed to PCBs at work had.

This was terrible science. In fact, the background level was really between 0.9 ppb and 1.5 ppb. The people who were tested had significantly higher levels of PCBs than most Americans. Not surprisingly, though, a full-page GE ad in the December 19, 1997 Berkshire Eagle trumpeted: “PCB levels in blood are normal in Pittsfield. They’re just the same as if you lived down the road in Sheffield or out in San Francisco. Everything we know tells us living near soil containing PCBs isn’t going to hurt you. We rely on health studies. We believe that studies show people do not get PCBs in their blood from soil, that PCBs do not cause adverse health effects and that cleanup standards should be based on existing evidence not speculation about remote possibilities.”

Now think again about the Maryland study and the 2.7 fold increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at levels of 6.7 ppb.

So why exactly is this column called “Dredge or Die.” Well, the kicker is that for years were told that the main sources of exposure to PCBs was working with them or eating fish that swam in contaminated water.
But Dr. Carpenter has a new warning for us. We are all at risk from breathing in PCBs. You don’t have to have worked at GE. You don’t have to have eaten PCB-contaminated fish. All you have to do is breathe.
His major new studies demonstrate the danger of the volatilization of PCBs. All New York State hospitals create a registry of the diseases their patients suffer from. There is also a comprehensive registry of the approximately 900 contaminated waste sites in New York State. Dr. Carpenter’s team correlated these databases to see whether there were any links between those areas where you could find persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, and the ailments people were experiencing. What Dr. Carpenter found is not only surprising, but very frightening. Unexpectedly, even though people living along the Hudson River are generally better off financially than most New Yorkers, and smoke less, and get more exercise, and have a healthier diet with more fruits and vegetables, they are more like to suffer from heart disease and diabetes and thyroid disease and female genital disease.

Dr. Carpenter emphasized: “We found that living next to the Hudson River … suggests the chance of having a heart attack is 39 fold greater than if you live in a zip code that doesn’t abut a hazardous waste site. This is the highest risk ratio we have ever found for any disease. It’s highly statistically significant … (and) it does say that living next to a contaminated river increases your risk of a heart attack.”

In another unfinished study of people in Anniston, Alabama, the data suggests that there is a relationship between PCB levels and high blood pressure.

His Hudson River data found a 36 fold elevated risk of diabetes as compared to people who don’t live near a contaminated site.

These new studies have made Dr. Carpenter a forceful advocate for dredging both the Hudson River and the Housatonic.

Now there are many environmental advocates who love the gorgeous twists and turns of the Housatonic River. It is extraordinarily beautiful. And there is no doubt that any rigorous removal strategy will transform those oxbows, especially in the first 10 to 20 years. There are sportsmen who fish the river; duck-hunters who hunt. There are kayakers and canoeists and the hikers and the birdwatchers.

But if Dr. Carpenter is right, the stakes are far higher than the aesthetics of the River. What is at stake is the health of everyone who lives near the River, everyone who breathes in the PCBs that evaporate from the River.
Dr. Carpenter knows that he is delivering unexpected news; and he appreciates that people may be skeptical:

“Now let me elaborate a little bit on how you can be exposed by just living near a site. You know our government in general blames eating contaminated fish as our whole major route of exposure. Well, people who live by contaminated rivers in general are more knowledgeable about eating contaminated fish than people who don’t … The only logical explanation is that you’re inhaling PCBs that go into the air. And let me say that again. The only realistic explanation is that these diseases are being expressed is because people are breathing in the PCBs.

“(And) the levels you have in air in most of the sites where it has been measured are not terribly high. But I think our results suggest that you don’t need high levels in order to have adverse health effects. And so that’s really the punchline.”

There were some in the audience who, with very good reason, are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of dump trucks moving through the Berkshire Hills, with dredging equipment in the river. And Dr. Carpenter emphasized that any dredging should be done with the greatest care.

He reiterated: “Now I get calls frequently about people concerned about the dredging that’s going to happen in the Hudson River. Is it going to increase the levels in the air? And the answer is yes! Temporarily … But people are getting sick and dying of diseases right now because of the contaminants that are there. And this becomes an argument for doing the dredging in the most protective way as fast as possible. But if we don’t get them out we’re going to be left with this increased risk of disease for generations!”

Thanks to recent EPA studies, we know that the fish in the Housatonic are some of the most contaminated fish in America; we know the ducks have 200 times more PCBs than the recommended allowance for poultry. We know baby minks die when they are fed Housatonic fish. And now we know that every day we don’t remove PCBs from the Housatonic River, someone somewhere along the river has a more significant chance of heart disease or diabetes or cancer.

I think it’s fair to say we dredge or die!

And, for me, it’s definitely time for another double espresso.


Mickey Friedman’s “A Red Family” is published by the University of Illinois Press. For the record, he is a board member of the Housatonic River Initiative.

Thursday May 14, 2009 © Mickey Friedman – All Rights Reserved