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Fox River PCB cleanup plan inadequate, toxicologist reports

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 is finished.

"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 proposed plan.

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 effects.

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 and occupation.

"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 dredging."

"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."

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