5.5. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

5.5.1. Background and Sources: PCBs

Polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, are synthetic chemical mixtures that were used for their nonflammable and insulating properties until they were restricted in the U.S. in the 1970s. They provided temperature control in transformers and capacitors, and were also used for lubrication and other heat transfer applications. They were sold primarily under the name of Arochlors in the U.S. They are still found in old fluorescent lighting fixtures, appliances containing pre-1977 PCB capacitors, and old hydraulic oil. The characteristics of the fluids were changed by modifying the mixture components, so each of the major Arochlor formulations is composed of different concentrations and combinations of the 209 PCB chemicals. Until the mid 1970s, PCBs were also used in manufacturing processes for a wide range of different substances, from plastics to paint additives. By 1979, the manufacture of PCBs in the U.S. was prohibited and their import, use, and disposal, were regulated by EPA (EPA 1979). In the 1980s, Jacksonville was the site of several electrical testing and service businesses which intentionally and unintentionally dispersed PCB-contaminated fluids (i.e., waste oil) into or near the LSJR.  Waste oil uses and spills from locomotive wastes has also contributed PCBs near the LSJR.  One of the most visible PCB legacies in the U.S. is the Hudson River, where capacitor plants discharged wastewaters into the river resulting in contaminated sediments in rivers and estuaries for decades to come.

PCBs are inert, which makes them industrially valuable but environmentally harmful. They do not react readily by microbes, sunlight, or by other typical degradation pathways. They are not very soluble in water, so the lighter ones tend to evaporate and the heavier ones tend to associate with particles, whether in the air, soil or sediments. Another important consequence of PCBs’ chemical properties is that they are compatible with fatty tissue, allowing extensive uptake and bioaccumulation in the fats of plants and animals. They are readily biomagnified because they are not easily metabolized and excreted.

PCBs are introduced directly into the environment today primarily from hazardous waste sites and improper disposal of old appliances and oils. However, they also may be transported long distances in the atmosphere, either in gas form or attached to particles. The principal route of PCB transport to aquatic environments is from waste stream waters, downstream movement by means of solution and re-adsorption onto particles, and the transport of sediment itself, until eventually reaching estuaries and coastal waters.  Like PAHs, sometimes sources of PCB contamination can be elucidated by examining different patterns of contamination of the different PCB constituents, but several processes obscure those patterns. Weathering, currents and tides, multiple sources in a large drainage basin, and repeated cycles of evaporation, sorption and deposition all tend to mix everything up so individual sources are not usually identifiable unless there is a very specific, current source.

Because of methodological developments over the years and variable definitions of “total PCBs”, it is not feasible to compare total PCB or mixture concentrations (like Arochlors). Consequently, several individual PCBs were evaluated here and total PCBs were estimated from those values. The specific eight PCBs we decided to evaluate were selected on the basis of their presence in the LSJR and on the availability of comparable data. We estimate that the PCBs we examined in this study represent 20% of the total PCBs that were actually present. More information about the calculations we used to estimate total PCBs is given in Appendix 5.3.A.

5.5.2. Fate: PCBs

PCBs have a high affinity for suspended solids (organic matter) and are very insoluble in water.  Due to their properties, PCBs are found in much higher concentrations in sediment and biota than in water. Sediment can become a significant source as well, because of desorption, diffusion, and possible re-suspension of PCBs in the water column. Removing contaminated sediments is the predominant mechanism of PCB removal.

5.5.3. Toxicity: PCBs

The effects of PCBs on wildlife as a result of waterway contamination have been extensively documented over the years.  During the 1960s, mink farmers in the Great Lakes region fed their mink fish from Lake Michigan tributaries that had been contaminated with PCBs. These ranch mink suffered severe outcomes including high mortality rates and reproductive failure. PCB contamination in the Hudson River from 1947-1977 by the General Electric Company led to fishing bans that were not changed until 1995 when fishing became permissible on a catch-and-release basis only.  The state of New York recommends that children under age 15 and pregnant women not eat any fish from the 200-mile stretch of the river that has been designated as an EPA Superfund site.

PCBs can bioaccumulate in the fat tissue of organisms since they are highly lipophilic (Fisk et al. 2001; Cailleaud et al. 2009) and can also be directly toxic to aquatic organisms.  Cailleaud et al. 2009 reported a preferential accumulation of HMW PCBs and preferential elimination of LMW PCBs in an estuarine copepod.  Unlike PAHs, PCBs can biomagnify up the food chain and top-level carnivores are particularly susceptible to toxicity (Guillette Jr. et al. 1999).  Since PCBs are chemically inert, they are highly resistant to chemical breakdown and are therefore very persistent in the environment. Sepúlveda et al. 2002 reported the accumulation of PCBs in the livers of Florida largemouth bass collected from different locations in the LSJR.  The liver PCB concentrations were highest in the largemouth bass collected from Green Cove and Julington Creek, as compared with those collected from Welaka. PCBs exert toxicity in aquatic organisms primarily via endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity (Fossi and Marsili 2003). Reported effects of PCB exposure include male feminization due to increased estradiol, reduced male and female fertility, modified immune system, and altered reproductive behavior. Acute toxicity values (96 h LC50s) range from 12 µg/L to 10 mg/L for aquatic invertebrates and range from 8 µg/L to 100 mg/L for fish. Bergeron et al. 1994 demonstrated an increased percentage of female hatchling turtles after exposure of the eggs to PCBs in the laboratory.  Likewise, Guillette Jr. et al. 1999 reported reproductive abnormalities in the hatchling and juvenile alligators of Lake Apopka, FL, thought to have been caused by embryonic exposure to PCBs and other environmental contaminants.  However, Sepulveda et al. 2004 also recently reported thiamine deficiency in Florida alligators as another potential cause of the population declines.

Due to their endocrine-disrupting properties, PCBs may threaten aquatic ecosystems at both the individual and the population level.

5.5.4. Current Status: PCBs in Sediments

Polychlorinated biphenyls are produced only by human activity so their simple presence denotes human impact. The majority of the sediments contained some PCBs. In 2017 (greatest data set), most sediments levels that could affect sensitive species, as indicated by concentrations greater than TEL guidelines (Figure 5.32). However, in most of the river, the estimated total PCB concentrations were far below the probable effects level of 189 ppm, producing a low toxicity pressure throughout the basin. The PCBs were often found at levels typical for urban, industrialized environments (Daskalakis and O’Connor 1995). Most of the river’s sediments had concentrations of PCBs well below the 80 ppb that characterizes a “high” level compared to the rest of the coastal areas in the country (Durell et al. 2004).

Figure 5.32 Average concentrations of individual PCB congeners and total PCBs in sediments collected in 2017 in the LSJR. Probable Effect Level (PEL) is indicated by the dotted red line.
Figure 5.32 Average concentrations of individual PCB congeners and total PCBs in sediments collected in 2017 in the LSJR. Probable Effect Level (PEL) is indicated by the dotted red line.

The picture changes somewhat when we partition the river. It becomes apparent that the western tributaries, Area 1, have far more toxicity pressure from PCBs than the mainstem portions of the river. In Cedar River and Rice Creek, the average PCB concentration exceeded, by a factor of ten, the concentrations that are considered high for the nation’s coastal areas (Daskalakis and O’Connor 1995). Particularly high levels were found in the Cedar-Ortega in the late 1990s. In 2000-2003, Rice Creek was a hot spot for PCBs 105, 118, 128, 180 and 206, the first two of which are among the most toxic (ATSDR 2000) (Figure 5.33).

Figure 5.39
Figure 5.33 Average concentrations of PCBs in sediments from 2000-2007 in the four areas of the LSJR and in three streams in Area 1.
Sediment quality guidelines for PCBs are shown as dashed lines. Area 1 – western tributaries; Area 2 – north arm; Area 3 – north mainstem; Area 4 – south mainstem. See text in Section 5.2 for data sources.

5.5.5. Trends: PCBs in Sediments

The data for PCBs are scarce (1996-2003 and 2017), so trends are difficult to identify. However, the distributions of the PCBs we examined appear to be reasonably constant along the river and across the years, an outcome of the persistence of the long-banned substances.

5.5.6. Summary: PCBs

PCBs persist in the LSJR long after regulatory and environmental controls were put into place. They are weathering but may continue to exert their influence, with little changes in concentration over time. Outside of the highly contaminated western tributaries, these compounds by themselves are not likely to be major stressors of benthic organisms, but may exert a low-level toxicity pressure throughout the basin.

The STATUS of PCBs in sediments is Unsatisfactory, and the TREND is Uncertain because data were lacking.

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