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The Ecologist January '71
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The Ecologist January 1971: PCBs


Forty years ago this month – John Noble and Harry Rothman wrote in the Ecologist about the mystery of 8,000 bird deaths and the toxic effects of PCBs found in the environment

Back in January 1971, the Ecologist reported on the mystery of 8,000 bird corpses washing up along British shorelines in September of the previous year. Although only eight were subject to toxicity analysis, all were found to contain larger-than-normal levels of PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphynel), the adverse affects of which were little known to many at the time.

Noble and Rothman asked in their article 'how do they [PCBs] get into the environment, and what long-term toxic hazard do they present even in very minute doses?'

Banned during the 1970’s, PCBs are a family of chemical compounds with a wide range of practical applications. The resinous products of PCB were widely used in appliances such as lubricants, paint and varnish.

PCBs, like other organo-chlorine insecticides such as DDT, are known to cause adverse affects on, among other things, the skin and liver of the organisms that come into contact with them. A recent study by Marianne Kraugerud, of the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, has found that exposure to PCBs also affects the body’s hormones, including oestrogen, testosterone and cortisol. These hormones are responsible for a number of vital bodily functions, including regulating sex, body shape, and our ability to reproduce.

In her recent film The Idiot Cycle, Emmanuelle Garcia argues that part of the problem lies in the fact that because research into chemical toxicity doesn’t benefit those who produce them 'we are left with the impression that we don't know very much and that we don't know the extent of the problem'.

The pervasive existence of toxic chemicals and their prevalence in commercial uses lies, argues Emmanuelle, in a combination of the lack of political will, scientific proof and industry pressure.

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