Painting the PCB picture

Discovery of the problem

A warden with the California Department of Fish and Game spots several men sanding a wood railing on a commercial fishing boat anchored just inside a southern-California bay. Both federal and state law prohibits the release of sawdust into public waters. The sawdust was analyzed by a state of California laboratory to determine whether any hazardous paint or varnish residues were also entering this popular recreational bay. Much to everyone's surprise, the analysis revealed hazardous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Experts were consulted, but no one could explain this finding. Some hypothesized the railing was previously painted with a PCB-contaminated varnish, but there exists no known instance of PCB oil being illegally or mistakenly1 added to varnish or stain.

In another instance an environmental assessment of an abandoned building revealed hazardous levels of PCBs in the storm drain catch basins. One sediment sample exceeded 6,000 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of sediment. The building, built in the 1950s, housed a large testing pool with a hydraulic wavemaker for hydrodynamic and other marine testing. PCBs were (allegedly) never used at this location, but electrical transformers, that may contain PCBs, were used at the site. Drums of various chemicals were also reported to have been occasionally stored at the site. Both private and government environmental experts were consulted. More detailed historical research and field testing, as recommended by the experts, revealed no PCB storage and no PCB contamination anywhere near the transformer locations. The experts were stumped.

While it is true that paint manufacturers did not use PCBs in pigments, major paint manufacturers used around five to 12 percent PCBs in many paints as a plasticizer.

Separate coincidences? No. These are just two examples of a previously obscure source of significant environmental contamination: PCBs in paint. PCBs were added to paint for various reasons, including water and chemical resistance. While there is information in print describing PCBs as an ingredient of paint, many environmental professionals in both private industry and government are unaware of this use of PCBs.

History of PCBs

PCBs do not occur naturally. They were first manufactured in 1929 and gained wide acceptance in industry mainly due to their excellent electrical and temperature insulating properties. Their primary use has been in electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors, heat transfer systems, hydraulics, inks and carbonless copy paper. A common misbelief that PCBs were virtually nontoxic also contributed to their popularity.2 Not until 1968 -- when more than 1,200 people in Yusho, Japan became sick after eating food cooked in PCB contaminated oil -- did the world begin to see PCBs as dangerous.3 Soon thereafter, studies revealed that PCBs could cause cancer in humans. PCBs also persist in the environment and leave the human body and other organisms very slowly, sometimes accumulating to dangerous levels.

While not all cancer-causing chemicals are banned, the carcinogenic characteristics of PCBs led to the ban on manufacturing PCBs in the United States beginning in 1978. Total U.S. production of PCBs was estimated at 1.25 billion pounds.4 Approximately 24 million pounds of PCBs are still unaccounted for and believed to have been released into the environment.5 More significant than the quantity of PCBs in the environment is the fact that PCBs have been found in nearly every biological species.6

The stealth contaminant

When evaluating a site for "recognized environmental conditions,"7 a typical threshold inquiry includes identifying potential sources of contamination. Investigating present and past uses of the site provides a basis for further inquiry. This information is then applied to form opinions and to make recommendations for further investigation. Such investigation may lead to sampling and laboratory analysis for specific environmental contaminants. boat

In the case of an older structure, environmental professionals commonly know that insulation may contain asbestos, paint may contain lead and electrical transformers may contain PCBs.8 However, of all the information sources relied on by environmental professionals, paint -- either legally applied or illegally dumped -- is rarely mentioned as a source of PCB contamination.

An abundance of literature clearly sets forth many common sources of PCB contamination. For example, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CAL/OSHA) issued an Information Bulletin in 1983 regarding safe handling of PCBs, including contamination source information. Absent from this widely disseminated document is any mention of PCBs in paint. Likewise, a 1988 Fact Sheet published by the State of California also details sources of PCBs such as electrical equipment, fluorescent lights and medical equipment, but nowhere is paint mentioned as a PCB source. Even senior government environmental officials have failed on several occasions to recommend paint as a potential source of PCB contamination.9

An U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance document serves as yet another example of the pervasive lack of knowledge regarding PCBs in paint. In response to an inquiry for "listings of paint manufacturers that used PCBs in their paint," then chief of EPA's U.S. Chemical Regulation Branch responded in writing that EPA "does not have any listings of paint manufacturers using pigments containing PCBs."10 The obvious implication of the above EPA guidance is that PCB containing paint is essentially a non-issue. While it is true that paint manufacturers did not use PCBs in pigments, major paint manufacturers used around five to 12 percent PCBs in many paints as a plasticizer.

The wrong mix

By the 1950s, PCBs had become an established part of many exterior and interior paints and other coating formulations. Chlorinated rubber paint was the most common paint to contain PCBs. Chlorinated rubber gives paint excellent water and chemical resistance, elasticity and durability. Since chlorinated rubber alone made paint too brittle for long-term performance, a plasticizer was added. Until the ban on the manufacture of PCBs, Monsanto's PCB product, Aroclor 1254, was the plasticizer of choice when chemical resistance was desired. PCBs significantly enhance the chemical resistance of the chlorinated rubber.11 One paint formula, "Swimming Pool Paint" specified 5.4 percent Aroclor 1254 by weight.12 Paint and lacquer formulations typically specify 5 to 10 percent or more Aroclor 1254. Dried, the paint may contain 15 to 25 percent PCBs.

While laws exist regulating the disposal of certain PCB containing wastes, no law currently requires the testing of painted materials for the existence of PCBs before demolition or disposal.

Laws currently in place

The manufacturing of paint using PCBs was banned in 1978. PCBs are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), rather than the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The PCB Spill Cleanup and Disposal Amendments published in 1998 modified many PCB regulations. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), title 40, part 761, section 761.1(a), states that the regulations set forth "prohibitions of, and requirements for, the manufacture, processing, distribution in commerce, use, disposal, storage, and marking of PCBs and PCB items." A majority of the laws apply only if PCBs are present above certain concentrations. Since land burial is generally prohibited, liquid wastes containing greater than 50 ppm are usually incinerated (40 CFR 761.60).

Paints are mentioned under TSCA 40 CFR 761.62, that sets forth regulations for the disposal of numerous PCB containing materials, including "applied dried paints, varnishes, waxes or other similar coatings or sealants." Disposing of such materials in a landfill triggers several requirements such as notice, leaching potential and record keeping. For example, "any person disposing of PCB bulk product waste must maintain a written record of all sampling and analysis of PCBs or notifications made...for 3 years from the date of the waste's generation." (40 CFR 761.62b5). These records are to be made available to EPA on request.

Prior to demolition of any building, an assessment of lead-based paint and asbestos in building materials must be made. If elevated levels of these hazards are found, the law requires that specially trained and licensed contractors implement measures to reduce the risks of exposure to themselves, the community and the environment. PCBs are treated differently. No such assessment of possible PCBs in paints and other building materials is routinely practiced nor required by law. For example, during the demolition process, heat is generated that volatilizes PCBs. Work such as torch cutting (or implosion that results in fire) can generate toxic PCB-combustion byproducts such as furans, a colorless liquid heterocyclic compound that EPA has placed on its Extremely Hazardous Substances list.

ASTM recommendations

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) provides guidance for performing environmental site assessments. As a standard practice, environmental professionals follow ASTM guidance when performing initial (Phase I) Environmental Site Assessments. ASTM recommends inquiry into the presence and condition of PCB-containing equipment. Electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors as well as hydraulic equipment such as elevators and auto lifts are potential PCB sources listed in ASTM.13

The purpose of ASTM is to provide "all appropriate inquiry into the previous ownership and uses of the property" for purposes of determining potential liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund.14 ASTM specifically focuses on leaks because, "in the absence of a release, PCBs are not regulated by CERCLA."15

ASTM also provides for inquiry into other issues ("Non-Scope Considerations"). According to ASTM, these issues do not present potential CERCLA liability. However, potential purchasers of commercial property are typically interested in liability issues beyond CERCLA. ASTM recognizes non-CERCLA liability issues such as asbestos-containing materials and lead-based paint.16 Since non-leaking PCBs may result in significant owner liability, standard practice such as ASTM should recommend inquiry into other potential PCB sources, such as paint.

To fix the problem

The federal government and several states have specific laws that require testing of certain commercial buildings, automotive and other materials before any activity which may release asbestos fibers into the air (e.g., California Labor Code § 6501.9). Similar laws are in place for activities involving lead (e.g., Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992,Title X, P.L. § 102-550) and other materials such as radon (Indoor Radon Abatement Act of 1988). Professional guidelines, training and certifications for asbestos and lead have institutionalized the successful, comprehensive assessment and abatement of these hazards. Environmental professionals and the media have raised the public's awareness of these hazards. However, while laws exist regulating the disposal of certain PCB containing wastes, no law currently requires the testing of painted materials for the existence of PCBs before demolition or disposal.

Given the pervasiveness and toxicity of PCB containing paints, such laws are needed. Volatilization and toxic thermal by-product generation from many demolition activities involving PCB-painted materials provide further impetus for such legislation. PCBs volatilize when heated due to demolition activities such as torch cutting, heat stripping of paint, and other activities.17 PCBs are simply two chlorinated benzene rings connected by a covalent carbon bond. When heated at temperatures as low as 300 degrees Celsius, furans are produced.18 Furans are similar in structure to PCBs, but with an oxygen atom bonded between the two rings. As previously mentioned in this article, the toxicity of furans is well established.

Environmental professionals, regulators, demolition contractors, disposal facility operators, property owners and real estate professionals need to be aware of this obscure source of environmental contamination. If older demolition materials have painted surfaces, properly trained professionals should test them for PCBs. If PCBs are present, proper handling, notification and disposal practices should be implemented. Too often, untrained workers are handling and being exposed to PCBs without their knowledge. Property owners are at financial risk if PCBs are present at their sites and landfill facilities are unknowingly accepting materials containing PCBs.

This inconsistent legal framework between lead and asbestos on one side and PCBs on the other suggests the need for significant changes in dealing with PCBs. A framework is needed requiring the detection of PCBs before demolition or any other activity that may unknowingly expose persons or the environment to unnecessary health risks.

end notes

1 See "History of PCBs," supra.
2 State of California, Departments of Health Services and Industrial Relations, Hazard Evaluation System & Information Service (HESIS) Fact Sheet No. 13, February 1988.
3 Yusho, Japan, 1968, a heat exchanger used to pasteurize (heat disinfect) cooking oil was leaking, causing oil in the heat exchanger to leak into the cooking oil.
4 National Research Council (NRC), Polychlorinated Biphenyls, National Academy of Sciences: Washington, D.C., 1979, p. 12.
5 Mackay, D., "Environmental Pathways of Polychlorinated Biphenyls" in "Comments and Studies on the Use of Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Response to an Order of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit," EPA, Washington, D.C., 1982, as cited in Erickson, Mitchell D., Analytical Chemistry of PCBs, 2nd ed., Lewis Publishers, 1997, p. 65, with a detailed discussion of PCB production pp. 35-37.
6 Erickson, Mitchell D., Analytical Chemistry of PCBs, 2nd ed., Lewis Publishers, 1997, p. 19.
7 American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), "Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase One Environmental Site Assessment Process," Designation E 1527-97
8 ASTM Standard Practice E 1527-97 considers asbestos containing materials and lead-based paint as non-scope considerations.
9 During investigation of both scenarios set forth at the beginning of this article, on many occasions the authors consulted senior environmental officials from local, state, and federal agencies. Private consultants were also contacted. At no time did any expert -- government or private -- identify PCBs in paint as a potential source of contamination.
10 Letter from EPA Chemical Regulation Branch Chief Tony Baney, to Greg Brendlinger, Technical Director, Stout Environmental, Inc., date stamped December 20, 1990, provided to the authors on May 30, 2000, by "The TSCA Assistance Information Service" in Washington D.C., a company under current contract with EPA to provide information to the public regarding PCBs. 11 Martens, Charles R., ed., Technology of Paints, Varnishes and Lacquers, Reinhold Book Corporation: New York, 1968, pp. 188-190.
12 Bennett, Harry, editor-in-chief, The Chemical Formulary: A Collection of Valuable, Timely, Practical, Commercial Formulae and Recipes for Making Thousands of Products in Many Fields of Industry, vol. 13, Chemical Publishing Company, Inc., New York, 1967. Three formulas for PCB-containing "Swimming Pool Paint" are listed on page 172. Other paint formulas calling for PCBs include four "Polyurethane Coatings" on page 174 and "Cellulose Acetate-Butyrate Lacquers, Paper Lacquers" on page 178.
13 American Society for Testing and Materials, Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process E 1527-97, Section, and Transaction Screen Process E 1528-97, Sections through
14 American Society for Testing and Materials, Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments Environmental Site Assessment Process E 1527-97, Section 1.1.
15 American Society for Testing and Materials, Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Transaction Screen Process E 1528-97, Section
16 American Society for Testing and Materials, Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process E 1527-97, Section 12.1, and Transaction Screen Process E 1528-97, Section 11.4.
17 Larcom, B.J. et al., "Risk Assessment of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) On-Board Navy Ships," Naval Medical Research Institute, Toxicology Division, National Technical Information Service, page 22 (December, 1996). Also, Erickson, Mitchell D., Analytical Chemistry of PCBs, 2nd ed., Lewis Publishers, 1997, p. 80.
18 Erickson, Mitchell D., Analytical Chemistry of PCBs, 2nd ed., Lewis Publishers, 1997, p. 81.

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This article appeared in Environmental Protection, Volume 11, Number 10, October 2000, Page 58.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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