Friday, 20 May 2016

PCBs – A TOXIC THREAT! Safeguarding Human Health and the Environment

Polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs, are a group of man-made, organic chemicals that are highly unreactive and largely resistant to breakdown causing them to persist in the environment. Due to this chemical stability they have a range of applications including as: coolants and insulating fluids in electrical equipment such as transformers, capacitors and fluorescent light ballasts, flame-retardants, plasticizers in paints, plastics, and rubber products, as well as in hydraulic equipment, lubricants, carbonless copy paper, adhesives and dyes.

PCB exposure to humans may occur through the consumption of contaminated fish, meat, dairy products or water, absorption through the skin or inhalation of noxious fumes particularly from waste disposal facilities. Electrical appliances and devices older than thirty (30) years may emit PCBs as vapours when they become heated, thereby acting as another potential source of exposure. Additionally, so too are fires, spills and repair or maintenance of PCB containing equipment. The health effects on humans and animals from exposure vary from incidences of skin conditions such as chloracne and rashes, neurological issues, reduced fertility and other reproductive disorders, to more severe problems such as increased risk of cancers of the digestive system, liver, and skin.

As a result of their detrimental characteristics, PCBs have been classified as a Persistent Organic Pollutant or ‘POP’ under the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty adopted in 2001 with the primary objective of restricting and ultimately eliminating the production, use, trade, release and storage of POPs. Trinidad and Tobago became a party to the Stockholm Convention in 2002.

The safe management of PCBs is therefore imperative to reduce its effects on humans and the environment, and to fulfil the obligations under the Stockholm Convention. This can be achieved by:
  • Monitoring equipment for leakages of PCBs. Laboratory analysis can confirm the presence of PCBs.
  • Always using personal protective equipment (PPE) including chemically impervious disposable coveralls, gloves and disposable shoe covers, respirators equipped with organic vapour filters, rubber boots, and safety glasses, as a minimum when handling PCBs to avoid contact with the skin.
  • Following the control measures specific to the type of PCB material being handled.
  • Ensuring the handling of all PCB wastes, and contaminated PPE is undertaken by licenced professionals. Solid and liquid PCB wastes should be placed in sturdy plastic bags and containers respectively, prior to storage in labelled receptacles of high structural integrity.
  •  Disposing of all PCB wastes only at certified disposal facilities. Avoid releasing PCB wastes into the environment (i.e. air, soil or water).
  • Testing PCB storage sites for potential contamination and having certified personnel remediate them accordingly.
       PCBs are harmful chemicals that require special care during handling and disposal. As such, their environmentally sound management is critical for safeguarding human health, protecting the environment and reducing, or ultimately eliminating the threats they pose.

Written by the Ministry of Planning and Development 

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