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Real Science

PCBs in the Hudson River

Michael Rosenthal

(7/2015) In the mid-1960s I accepted my first college faculty position in chemistry at Bard College in Dutchess County, New York, north of Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River. The Hudson River, whose source is Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Park, flows south into the Atlantic Ocean just past New York City, is a beautiful river and is an example of the damage that can be done to a waterway by negligent behavior. The most publicized pollution of the Hudson River was due to the contamination of the river with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by the General Electric Company, beginning in the late 1940ís.

PCBs were used as dielectric and coolant fluids in transformers, capacitors, and electric motors. Between 1947 and 1977 General Electric released as much as 1.5 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson. GEís discharge of PCBs into the Hudson River was not illegal at the time. Environmental laws had not yet been passed that would have regulated the discharge, and many believed the chemical would not do harm due to its low chemical reactivity. However, the chemical entered the food chain in the river and essentially destroyed the fishing industry in the Hudson River through a process known as bioaccumulation and biomagnification. In 1976 The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation banned all fishing in the Hudson River! Aside from the dangers to citizens accustomed to fishing in the Hudson and enjoying the fish, this destroyed the Hudson River fishing industry.

In this period, in support of the Hudson River, folk musician Pete Seeger founded in 1966 the Hudson Water Clearwater organization and launched in 1969 Sloop Clearwater, a 106 foot sailboat, established a Clearwater music festival, and stimulated many college environmental educational programs in the region. In these early days of my time at Bard College, I had become professionally involved in water chemistry, environmental issues, and historic preservation, and among the activities in which I became involved was membership on the Board of Directors of Sloop Clearwater.

The consequences of this pollution go far beyond the destruction of the Hudson River fishing industry. The Hudson River had been a source of drinking water and irrigation water to many communities along the Hudson, including the city of Poughkeepsie. PCBs are thought to be the source of a wide range of health problems that include neurological disorders and immune disorders, and they are especially dangerous for pregnant and nursing women and their offspring.

Pete Seegerís activism contributed to the banning of the use of PCBs in the United States in 1977, but much damage had already been done. In 1983 a 200 mile stretch of the Hudson River from Hudson Falls, NY, to New York City, was declared by The Environmental Protection Agency to be a Superfund cleanup site. After many years of study, the EPA proposed a plan in 2001 to dredge 100,000 pounds of PCBs from the Hudson River. Dredging had been discussed for years, and there were those who worried that dredging would actually make things worse by stirring up the contaminant. GE opposed the dredging plan, which was estimated would cost General Electric $460 million dollars.

Phase One was initiated by GE in May of 2009 and was completed in October of 2009, removing 300.000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and delivering it to a waste facility in Texas. Phase Two was initiated by GE and monitored by EPA and began in June 2011. There have been other smaller PCB cleanup efforts in particular parts of the Hudson.

Last month on May 25, the New York Times published an editorial with an update on the issue. The current phase of dredging, says The Times, will be completed by General Electric this fall and that GE then plans to quit dredging. But, says the Times, the problem is not solved. The commercial fishery is still dead, and recreational fishing is dangerous. PCBs will continue to flow downstream; they have already been detected in New York Harbor, some 200 miles way from the original discharge. General Electric feels that they have lived up to their responsibility, and that they need do no more to be consistent with their 2002 agreement with the EPA under the Superfund Law. Government agencies that are responsible under the law as "natural resource trustees" urge that the project be extended to another 136 acres of the river.

The fascinating aspect of this issue to me is that GE was never in violation of the law by discharging PCBs into the Hudson River. It reflected the carelessness of the times in not looking scientifically at the consequences of actions that affected the environment. (This is a nice introduction to a discussion of Global Warming). There are many other examples: the building of nuclear power plants in populated areas (remember Three Mile Island) and some less publicized scares at the Indian Point nuclear power plant not far from New York City and in southern Maryland at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. We need to pay closer attention to potential consequence of actions we take upon our environment and hold responsible those who cause damage, whether due to carelessness or just naivetť.

In an earlier article I discussed the procedure by which sunlight passes through glass windows to warm a room. A long-time friend and former Bard College chemistry colleague pointed out that I didnít quite get it right. Infrared radiation does not pass through glass. Visible light passes through the glass. Visible radiation that passes through the glass is then absorbed by colored materials inside the glass, which heat up and then emit infrared radiation inside, observed as warming. This is known as The Greenhouse Effect.

Finally, to close, letís examine a bit of pseudoscience. Have you run across the advertisement of a procedure called foot reflexology? Foot reflexology is a branch of reflexology, and is a procedure based on the claim that there are sections of your foot that connect directly to specific parts of your body. So, suppose you have a recurring pain in your back. A foot reflexologist massages and treats the portion of your foot that connects to the appropriate part of your back. Foot reflexologists often have diagrams on the wall of their establishments that show these specific connections. There is a similar branch of reflexology named hand reflexology with similar diagrams. Well, a good massage is always a nice thing, but there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the notion that foot reflexology or hand reflexology has any medical effect other than The Placebo Effect.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal