Carcinogens unearthed behind DuPont Hall

BY
STAFF REPORTER

PCB Contamination siteKelsey Wentling/THE REVIEW
Although PCBs were banned in the U.S. in 1979 due to their effect on human health, fluids from an old transformer have leaked PCBs into soil behind DuPont Hall.

Carcinogen contamination was found behind DuPont Hall earlier this month, according to a public notice released Sept. 14 by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

Known carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) was found at at 127 The Green, an asphalt plot behind Dupont Hall.

The university hired Brightfields, Inc., a DNREC-certified environmental services consultant, to conduct the investigation after an old transformer was removed during construction, according to Wendy March, project manager at DNREC.

“This type of contamination is common in areas containing transformers that were installed prior to 1979,” March said. “The manufacture of PCBs was banned in 1979. The oil in the transformers was changed out to non-PCB containing oil after the ban.”

Although PCBs were banned in 1979, they may still be found in the environment as the result of “poorly maintained hazardous waste sites,” leaks and inappropriate dumping and disposal of PCBs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

March said the risks of the contamination at 127 The Green are minimized by limiting access to the site due to chain-link fence surrounding the area.

Although the site is not accessible to pedestrians, the gate was left several feet open and pedestrians are able to walk in close proximity around the site.

During previous maintenance, fluids were presumably released from the transformers, according to Michael Gladle, the university’s director of health and safety. He stated in an email message that the contamination was not discovered until the university tested the soil in preparation for the installation of a new transformer and emergency generator, intended as an electrical upgrade for DuPont Hall.

PCBs were frequently used in oil solutions as insulators, potentially explaining their presence in transformer fluids, chemistry professor Klaus Theopold said.

“If you have a transformer in which you have relatively high voltages, you need something that insulates the wires from each other and that’s what they were originally used for before we realized that they were bad for people,” Theopold said.

Angelia Seyfferth, plant and soil science professor, researches the environmental effects of introducing chemicals into soil and water. She stated in an email that Monsanto originally manufactured PCBs under the name “Aroclor,” and had a variety of uses and applications.

127 The Green-1Photo Courtesy: Michael Gladle
Chain-link fences obstruct pedestrian access to the site, but upon visitation, the gate was left open and pedestrials are able to walk in close proximity to the site.

While Seyfferth said PCBs were primarily used as insulants in the cause of transformers they were included in a variety of industrial use. She said PCBs were also used as a pesticide extender, flame retardant and plasticiser.

PCBs pose a number of health and environmental threats and due to their chemical composition, do not break down readily in the environment. PCS can continue circulate from soil to water to air once introduced into a specific environment.

“I think that’s one of the problems with PCBs is that they’re exceedingly stable compounds,” Theopold said. “These carbon-chlorine bonds are very strong so these are compounds that would hang around for a long time and then they’re not very volatile so they’re really not going anywhere so that can be a problem.”

PCBs are toxic to humans at different levels, generally depending on the number of chlorine atoms and the dosage size. Their toxic effects on humans can also vary from, “skin irritation to endocrine disruption to cancer,” Seyfferth said.

Due to the persistence of PCBs in the environment, cleaning up or removing PCBs is complex and remediation time can vary depending on the load and toxicity. Seyfferth said PCBs could be removed in several ways, depending on the toxicity of the compound and its concentration.

Although both Seyfferth and Theopold said cleanup could not be done comprehensively, Theopold said one option is to reduce the compound by striping the chlorine from the molecule using a strong reducing agent, resulting in a metal salt that effectively leaves the hydrocarbon behind.

Substitution chemistry is also a viable alternative as well.

“You can essentially substitute the chlorine atoms with, lets say, hydroxyl groups or something,” Theopold said. “That would go a long way toward eventually destroying them.”

Other contamination sites on university property include STAR Campus, which was formerly the site of the Newark Chrysler Plant. March said DNREC has been working with the university to clean up the site since 2009.

“The university takes these issues very seriously,” Gladle said. “We are removing contaminated soils delineated by an independent environmental consultant.”

Gladle said the university is voluntarily choosing the most stringent cleanup standard, doing so in accordance to federal and state requirements.

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