Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ignorance Serves as Path to Unintentional Contamination

By: Duane Craig

There are few better examples of how ignorance enables widespread contamination than a tale about Monsanto, National Cash Register Company, the paper industry and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. This story started in 1957 and is still playing out across the country. Recently, new evidence of PCB contamination on the rise comes from Portage Creek in Kalamazoo, Michigan, according to this report in

PCB contamination on the rise in Kalamazoo

Four paper mills operated in that area, and today an 80-mile stretch of the river is part of the Superfund cleanup known as the Kalamazoo River Project, according to this background paper from the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are nine places along Portage Creek where PCB levels have increased from their 1993 level of 79 parts per million to 590 parts per million, and those particular places are known as hot spots. It is thought that erosion over the years moved the material and concentrated it in those hot spots. The cleanup will focus on about two miles of the creek and will involve a small portion of Axtell Creek from John Street to Portage Creek as well. The work area begins at Alcott Street and continues to where the creek meets the Kalamazoo River at E. Michigan Avenue.

In 1966, PCBs showed up in Swedish fish and wildlife so in 1967 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started testing this country's food supply for PCBs and found them in fish, eggs, milk, poultry, grain and cereal. Apparently, a particular type of packaging called greyboard, used to package cereal, had the highest concentrations of 433 parts per million. The greyboard was widely being made from recycled carbonless copy paper and carbonless paper was being made by the National Cash Register Company using a Monsanto product called Arochlor 1242. Archlor 1242 contained a cocktail of PCBs with 42 percent chlorine, according to this study. While NCR was the sole marketer of the carbonless copy paper it also licensed other paper mills in Wisconsin to make the product.

But, there was also another way PCBs were entering the environment from the paper industry. Paper mills in general were found to have PCBs higher than background levels in their wastewater and the culprit, once again, was carbonless paper. In 1977 there were nearly 800 paper mills using recycled wastepaper and those mills were using about 12,000 gallons of water to create each ton of paper. That water was flowing out to the rivers and streams or being disposed of as sludge in landfills. It was finally determined the PCBs were concentrating more in solids than they were in water, so as water carried the PCB-laden solids the solids were often distributed in clumps as sediment. Where that happened the PCB concentrations rose rapidly.

NCR stopped making the carbonless paper in 1971, but forty years later the world is still dealing with the legacy of unintentional contamination born from ignorance.

No comments: