Anglers, commercial fishermen, fish dealers, restaurateurs, Senator Edward Kennedy and just plain citizens were up in arms last week, all because of some colorless, viscous fluids known as PCBs. PCBs is the abbreviation for poly-chlorinated biphenyls, a group of chemical compounds that are used by industries throughout the world because of their resistance to heat. PCBs are toxic to a wide range of animals, including humans. These chemicals, when ingested in large doses, cause miscarriages and stillbirths, and they are turning up in dangerous amounts in the upper Mississippi River, the upper Ohio, the Hudson River and several of the Great Lakes.
Scientists in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been aware of the PCB menace for several years, but the bureaucrats in charge of EPA have dithered and dallied rather than take effective action. For example, last February EPA officials in New York stayed abatement plans for two polluting General Electric Company plants at Fort Edward and Hudson Falls after the company objected and requested an adjudicatory hearing to challenge PCB limitations. Conservationists maintain that EPA should have acted under Section 504 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, which gives the agency the right to sue to halt discharge of pollutants that present "an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons or to the welfare of persons where such endangerment is to the livelihood of such persons...."
Since 1942, G.E., which uses PCBs in the manufacture of electrical equipment, has been dumping them into the Hudson, an average of 30 pounds a day since 1971, 90 pounds on some occasions, the largest nonaccidental release of these poisons yet discovered in the U.S. and possibly the world.
The threat of PCB poisoning became a national concern three weeks ago when Ogden R. Reid, former ambassador to Israel and the new commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, got a copy of an EPA study that prompted him to warn the public against eating striped bass from the Hudson and coho salmon from Lake Ontario. Reid was further upset when he learned that his department, long deplored by conservationists as a sick joke, had known of PCB contamination since 1972 and possibly as early as 1970.
On Oct. 26, 1970, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED published a lengthy article of mine on chemical contaminants in game fish from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts, reporting that the WARF Institute in Madison, Wis., which did the laboratory analyses, detected high levels of PCBs in Hudson River stripers. On Feb. 17, 1971 I wrote to Carl Parker, chief of New York's Bureau of Fisheries, telling him that Hudson stripers had 11.4 parts per million of PCBs in their eggs and 4.01 in their flesh. In my report I informed Parker, "These are grim figures, and I certainly think the state should warn fishermen not to eat striped bass eggs." I also noted that the levels in the flesh did not make "great reading," and I suggested he read the SI article. Parker's reply was derisive.
Tests ordered by Reid or previously performed by EPA scientists and New York State disclosed that numerous species of Hudson fish in addition to striped bass were contaminated. These included rock bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass, shiners, white perch, northern pike and sturgeon. Apparently fish can ingest PCBs by taking in bottom sediments, eating lesser organisms or simply by swimming through water that contains PCBs. The striped bass pose a particularly vexing problem, which was Senator Kennedy's immediate concern. After spawning, bass from the Hudson migrate as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as New Jersey, and they are indistinguishable to fishermen from stripers emanating from rivers in the Chesapeake Bay where no serious PCB concentration has yet been discovered in the flesh of adult fish.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has placed a tolerance limit of five parts per million of PCBs in fish; according to the EPA National Water Quality Laboratory in Duluth, all Lake Michigan trout and salmon longer than 12 inches exceed that limit. Last May 30, the FDA seized 124,812 cans of Lake Michigan coho salmon because the PCB levels in the canned coho ranged from 7.6 to 10.9 ppm. The FDA also seized 6,480 pounds of frozen Lake Michigan coho and Chinook salmon from the Point Adams Packing Company; the PCB levels ranged from 8.2 to 9.2 ppm. Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Martin J. Schreiber wrote with some foresight last Nov. 8 to A. Gene Gazlay, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources: "There exists now a problem with contaminants in Lake Michigan that has the potential of destroying both sport and commercial fishing in all the Great Lakes. This situation could turn any efforts to develop the lake as a future protein source into a futile and frustrating endeavor." Since 1971 Michigan health authorities have advised fishermen not to eat salmon or trout from Lake Michigan more than once a week.
Large lake trout from Lake Superior are generally contaminated, and coho and chinook salmon in Lake Ontario have excessive levels. PCBs appear to be a threat to fish-eating birds in the Great Lakes region. "Severe reproductive failure has been identified in herring gull colonies around Lake Ontario," wrote Karl E. Bremer of the EPA Chicago office on July 24 to the Lake Michigan Toxic Substances Committee. "There is a positive correlation between early embryonic mortality and PCB contamination. The major effect on young birds is to produce symptoms of chick edema disease.... Officials have observed unnaturally high mortalities of gulls in recent years from Saginaw Bay and Grand Traverse Bay. Analysis of the liver and brain of a dead herring gull from Grand Traverse Bay in 1973 showed the presence of 2,600 ppm of Aroclor 1254 [a PCB]."
PCB pollution is not restricted to New York and the Great Lakes. Earlier this year the FDA seized and eventually buried 20,000 pounds of carp taken from Lake Pepin, a reach of the Mississippi 70 miles downriver from the Twin Cities. EPA scientists have also discovered excessive levels of PCBs in channel catfish and carp taken from the Ohio River.
On Sept. 29, 1972 Dr. Donald J. Lisk and Carl Bache of the pesticide research lab at Cornell University contributed a paper to Science on PCBs in lake trout in Cayuga Lake, N.Y. As a general rule, trout exceeding 24 inches in length had excessive levels, the highest reading of 30 ppm being found in a 9-year-old fish. Queried by SI, Dr. Lisk said no one in government had ever bothered to ask about the findings or the possible sources of the PCBs.