The cancer rate due to eating fish contaminated by
PCBs is roughly equal to the cancer rate experienced
by individuals who smoke two to three packs of cigarettes
a day, says a toxicologist commissioned by citizens
groups concerned about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
in Wisconsin's Fox River and Green Bay.
President and CEO of the national organization Citizens
for a Better Environment, Dr. Jeffery Foran was hired
by Clean Water Action Council on behalf of a coalition
of local and regional citizen groups. His task was to
evaluate the health risk assessments used by the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and the Wisconsin Department
of Natural Resources (DNR) for planning the cleanup
of PCBs in the Fox River.
Funding for Dr. Foran's analysis was provided by a
Superfund Technical Assistance Grant from the EPA, but
that did not stop him from criticizing the standards
proposed by the agency to measure how much of the toxic
chemicals can remain in the Fox River after cleanup
"Unfortunately, the proposed cleanup would fail to
protect public health," Dr. Foran concluded. "The government's
PCB cleanup standard must be at least four times stronger.
Sediment PCB levels remaining after cleanup should be
no more than .25 ppm (parts per million), in order to
achieve reasonable health protection. Otherwise, the
plan will not meet its stated objectives."
The state and federal governments propose to leave
behind an average of one ppm PCBs, four times higher
than levels that will protect wildlife. Two years ago,
the Wisconsin DNR had proposed .25 ppm as the cleanup
standard, but this has been weakened in the current
The toxic chemicals entered the northeast Wisconsin
river first as an element in carbonless copy paper which
used to be coated with a dye mixed with PCBs and encapsulated
in tiny beads. Writing on the opposite side of coated
paper would cause the beads to break, releasing the
dye on a second sheet of paper beneath.
A major source of PCBs in the Fox River has been traced
to several paper companies which manufactured or recycled
paper products, including carbonless copy paper.
In the late 1960s, researchers became concerned that
PCBs and other chemicals could play a role in nest failures
and deformities in fish eating birds. As a precaution,
the use of PCBs in carbonless copy paper was discontinued
in 1971, seven years before the federal government banned
most applications of PCBs in 1979.
PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls are a group of chemicals
consisting of 209 individual compounds. PCBs were widely
used as a fire preventive and insulator in the manufacture
of transformers and capacitors because of their ability
to withstand exceptionally high temperatures.
PCBs are now classified as a probable human carcinogen
by numerous national and international health organizations,
such as the EPA, the U.S. Public Health Service, and
the World Health Organization.
Research also links PCB exposure to developmental problems.
PCBs build up in the environment, increasing in concentration
as they move up the food chain. This is of special concern
in areas where fish are exposed to PCB contamination
and may be consumed by humans.
"Approximately, 40,000 individuals in the Fox River
and Green Bay region are faced with PCB cancer risks
similar to smoking two to three packs of cigarettes
a day," explained Dr. Foran. "Other, non-cancer health
risks are also extremely high. Their PCB exposure is
primarily through contaminated fish and waterfowl consumption.
These risks must be addressed immediately."
Also exposed to PCBs in the Fox River and Green Bay
system are 14,000 recreational anglers, and 12,000 low
income or minority individuals are highly exposed. Assuming
the recreational anglers expose one more family member
to fish consumption at the same rate, this means roughly
40,000 individuals are highly exposed to PCB health
Dr. Foran criticized the government assessment for
underestimating human health risks of PCB exposure.
Fish consumption rates are actually more than twice
as high as the rates used in the assessment, he said.
The Assessment uses a PCB "reduction factor" of 50
percent based on "an inaccurate assumption that individuals
practice appropriate cleaning and cooking procedures,"
Dr. Foran said.
The Assessment does not account for the cumulative
risks for individuals who eat both fish and waterfowl,
and who are also PCB exposed through recreation activities
"The stronger standard would achieve rapid results,
protecting public health as soon as the dredging is
completed," added Dr. Foran. "I saw no reasonable justification
for the government's weaker standard, which would force
the public to wait seven, 40 or even 100 years after
"Without bay cleanup, extremely high health risks will
continue for more than 100 years. Such high risks are
clearly unacceptable under standard government policies
used throughout the country," he warned.
Dr. Foran recommends a .25 ppm cleanup standard for
the lower bay, for minimum health protection which would
also reduce PCB flows to the upper bay and Lake Michigan.
Dr. Foran found that "significant ecological risks
occur at virtually all levels of biological organization
and for all assessment/measurement endpoints throughout
the Fox River/Green Bay system."