Seminar Abstract

DATE:  Friday, October 12, 2018
TIME:  2:30 pm (refreshments at 2:15 pm)
PLACE: ENR building, room 223
       14 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, NJ

Simon Litten
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, retired

PCBs: The Industrial and Social History of a Pariah Chemical

General Electric spent $1.7 billion dredging PCBs from the Upper Hudson River. Dredging operations in the New York/New Jersey Harbor are affected by trace concentrations of PCBs in sediments. Why were PCBs made and how did this functional chemical become such a pariah? The history of PCBs began in 1920 with the development of an economic synthesis of the heat transfer medium biphenyl by Swann Chemical of Anniston, Alabama. Nine years later a roofing materials company asked for a fire retardant more persistent than polychlorinated naphthalene. Swann chemists met the challenge by chlorinating biphenyl. Swann and later Monsanto marketed PCBs under the tradename Aroclor for numerous applications including as a dielectric in the electrical industry. Worker health effects were noted early in the life of PCBs but the epidemiology was muddled by the co-occurrence of other substances and of poorly understood by-products. The technical literature began reporting environmental occurrences of PCBs in the 1960s. This era saw anti-establishment protests against the War in Vietnam and of corporate power. There was also a rise of interest in environmental carcinogens. 1970 was the break-out year for public awareness of PCBs and they continue to be an exemplar of problematic technology.