Iqaluit PCB facility is a bad idea
I understand from a recent article in the French language paper, l’Aquilon, that Iqaluit is considering allowing a PCB incinerator to be located near town. I believe this is a dangerous idea for many reasons.
The l’Aquilon article suggested that PCB-contaminated material may be imported from other areas in the North for incineration in Iqaluit, and this might provide up to 35 jobs for 10 years. While I agree that we need to be creative in developing economic development opportunities, this particular venture carries unacceptable risk.
PCBs belong to a group of chemicals whose behaviour is described as the “grasshopper effect.” This means PCBs go through a continuous cycle of evaporation into the air, condensation, evaporation, and so on.
PCBs that are just lying around in contaminated soil, therefore, can be released into the air, get blown around by the wind, land somewhere else, evaporate again, get transported further, land again, and on and on. PCBs are persistent in the environment and almost impossible to get rid of.
Incineration appears to be the only way to get rid of PCBs, but doing so near to a populated centre with a cold climate such as ours appears to me to be foolhardy.
Already, because of the grasshopper effect, PCBs and pesticides from around the world, end up in the Arctic for two reasons:
1. Major air currents in the northern part of the earth tend to move contaminants towards the arctic and
2. Cold temperatures keep the chemicals from being able to evaporate and get back into the air. Therefore, once the chemicals find their way to the Arctic, they remain in the soil and the water and get picked up by land and marine mammals, and then people.
PCBs are stored in the fatty tissues of animals and are not easily broken down or removed once they are in the animal’s body. Also, much higher concentrations of PCBs are found in higher level animals such as seals and polar bear, because they eat animals that, in turn, have PCBs in their systems.
The main way that people in the North are exposed to PCBs is through country food and the most significant concern for human exposure to PCBs is for effects on the fetus and breastfeeding infants.
Effects associated with high cord-blood PCB concentrations include low birth weight, small head circumference, and short-term memory loss. Also, the birth size of male infants was inversely related to PCB concentration in mother’s milk in a study in northern Quebec. PCB exposure is also thought to impair immune responses to infection.
Inviting more contaminants into our community, so that we can keep the incinerator going and people employed, will add to the contaminants already in the environment. Even the Swan Hills facility in Alberta has had problems with contaminants escaping from their plant.
Can we be confident about the monitoring of emissions from a PCB incinerator plant given the concerns we already have about the unregulated burning at our dump?
There is plenty of uncertainty about the chronic effects of PCBs on people and a lack of proof about ill effects will always be used as an argument for proceeding with a project. It may be many years before we understand the effects of all environmental contaminants, not just PCBs, on people.
In the mean-time, I think we need to take precautions against inviting more PCBs into our midst. The Canadian Arctic Contaminants Report is a good place to start to learn more about PCBs.