Image 1 of 3
Photo: Monroe County History Center
Image 2 of 3
Photo: Sehvilla Mann
Image 3 of 3
Photo: Sehvilla Mann
This is the third of a three-part series on PCBs.
Research continues to link the banned industrial chemicals known as PCBs to a variety of health problems, including cancer.
In Bloomington that has implications for former employees of a Westinghouse plant, which used PCBs in capacitor manufacture for nearly 20 years, and for those exposed to dumped PCB wastes before the cleanup.
Kenny Seek sits in his living room on the rural southern edge of Bloomington. He recalls the 32 years he worked at Westinghouse.
One assignment exposed him directly to Inerteen – the company’s PCB mixture.
“I worked on the line, the end of the line taking them off, after they come through the carousel,” he says. “And of course they’ve got Inerteen all over them, you know. Some of them was pretty heavy so when I picked em up I had to get em against my stomach. Well I was getting Inerteen on my clothes. So I started breaking out.”
Seek says he didn’t know what the skin condition was until he went to the dermatologist.
“He asked me what I worked in, and I told him. So he tells me to go back, tell them to give me a leather apron,” he says. “And he got it cleared up.”
Seek may have been experiencing chloracne, an acute but not life-threatening skin condition PCBs sometimes cause. The more serious health risks researchers associate with the chemicals take years or even decades to emerge.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health epidemiologist Avima Ruder says PCBs tend to stick with people.
“People inhale them or absorb them through their skin,” she says. “In some cases if they’re not careful, like somebody brings a sandwich for lunch and doesn’t wash their hands before they eat the sandwich, there would probably be some PCBs on the sandwich. They accumulate in the fat in the body. There’s basically a reservoir, and slowly over time as they lose the chlorines the levels will drop.”
PCBs Linked To Cancer
The International Agency for Research on Cancer says it now has enough evidence to declare PCBs a definite human carcinogen – as opposed to a probable or possible one.
For years, Ruder and other scientists at NIOSH have been studying causes of death among nearly 25,000 workers exposed to PCBs at three electrical manufacturing plants, including the Westinghouse plant in Bloomington. They published an update earlier this year.
“The last round, the results didn’t differ too much from what we found in 2006 which was basically an excess of melanoma, skin cancer and brain cancer in Indiana, in the Indiana cohort,” she says.
Workers at a plant in New York State also had excess levels of melanoma and another cancer, multiple myeloma. The results at a plant in Massachusetts were “more of a scatter.”
“About 30 percent of the workers in Masssachusetts were Cape Verdean or Portugese, somewhat darker skinned – in some cases much darker skinned, and that’s thought to be protective against melanoma. So that might be the reason that they didn’t have as much,” Ruder says.
Cancer isn’t the only concern.
Ruder says in a another study, they also found “an excess” of Parkinson’s disease and, particularly in female workers, the neurological disorder ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The Environmental Protection Agency points to studies showing PCBs can damage animals’ immune, endocrine, nervous, and reproductive systems. It says there’s reason to believe most if not all of these effects translate to humans as well.
Some who all but bathed in PCBs seem to remain untouched. But for others a relative teaspoonful might have been enough to sicken them. Ruder says that’s because an individual’s risk might depend largely on factors like their genes.
“Just because somebody is exposed to a small amount doesn’t mean it can’t have a big effect. And some of the people who are exposed to large quantities of a substance um, don’t seem to have any effect. They just – they’re hardier, they maybe have a better immune system, so it’s very complicated, studying people,” Ruder says.
It also depends on which of the 209 PCBs they encountered.
“In the early days, they were much more highly chlorinated and later on they started using less chlorinated PCBs,” Ruder says. “The highly chlorinated ones break down much more slowly so there’s a difference in terms of environmental effects and effects in the body as to how long those would be retained.”
EPA officials say people shouldn’t underestimate the risks of environmental exposure. A relatively less harmful PCB often changes to become more toxic once out in the environment. And the PCBs that cling to sediment and build up in fish tissue tend to be the nastier ones.
Link Between Health Issues, PCBs Missing In Monroe County
Much remains unknown about how people who came in contact with PCBs from the Westinghouse plant might have been affected. The Monroe County Health Department’s Dennis Williamson says early in the cleanup, officials gathered a variety of data around the dump sites where Westinghouse took bad capacitors.
“We had ten dogs that were in the neighborhood, versus ten dogs that were miles away and compared those two,” he says. “And of course the dogs closer to the landfill had elevated levels, which would be expected. But the majority of studies have been on people, the residents, people who worked at the plant, or people who worked at the wastewater plant for the city.”
Bloomington-Area PCB Cleanup Sites
Williamson says none of that research turned up a link between PCBs and health problems. But he adds long-term research like the NIOSH study is more authoritative.
Ruder says even now the potential for exposure from electrical devices hasn’t ended.
“I did an estimate in 2006 based on some information we got from the Environmental Protection Agency of how many capacitors and transformers in the United States still had PCBs in them and there were over a million,” she says. “And of course that’s all very old equipment at this point, and from time to time one of them does spring a leak or explode and of course then people tend to exposed to a lot of PCBs.”
And while transformers and capacitors account for the greatest volume, companies used to put PCBs in all kinds of products – paint, caulking, insulation, plastics, even carbonless copy paper. Ruder says she hopes her research can bring some clarity for those who wonder if PCBs made them sick.
“I think people just want to know why,” she says. “’ Why did I get this disease?’ You know. ‘Was it because of what I worked with? Was it something else? Was it because I was also a smoker, or was also eating too many fatty foods?’ People want to know.”
Seek says at 76 he feels all right, aside from an irregular heartbeat. But he can’t help but wonder why, when so much care, money and attention went toward the cleanup the same effort and level of care wasn’t extended to the workers.
“If it was that bad,” he says, referring to the pollution, “why would they move the dirt and not take care of the people?
Former employee Isaac Browning says Westinghouse avoided acknowledging the dangers of PCBs even when it seemed absurd not to.
“When they came in to clean up inside the plant, we were all still working and they all wore their moon suits, and protective gear and was doing this cleanup right while we were working,” he says.
“ I mean, you know, if it was that dangerous that they needed all this protective equipment they shouldn’t have had us in there.”
Some workers sued Westinghouse and PCB manufacturer Monsanto at the end of the 1980s. But only a handful from Bloomington received settlements. The terms forbid them from disclosing the amounts.
“For people that worked in it, it’s — probably will never be over,” says Browning.
Ruder is working on a new study – an examination of all cases of cancer among the former capacitor workers NIOSH has tracked. That includes the nonfatal cases the mortality study would miss. As of this year, about 70 percent of the 3500 people who worked at Westinghouse Bloomington over the course of the PCB era are still living.