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What is PCB Remediation?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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PCB remediation is a form of environmental cleanup which is designed to remove or neutralize polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a class of chemicals which have been deemed hazardous to human and environmental health. PCBs were introduced in 1929 and widely used well into the second half of the 20th century before people began to recognize that they were extremely harmful. Production of PCB was banned in 1976. PCB remediation can involve environmental cleanup at a site known to be contaminated, removal of contaminated materials at a site which utilized PCBs, or containment of spills.

This chemical is viscous and very sticky, with a yellowish color and no odor or taste. PCB can accumulate with ease in the soil, and it penetrates a wide variety of barriers, including some types of protective garments. Exposure to PCB has been linked with the development of birth defects and a wide variety of other health problems, making cleanup and containment of this chemical a concern in many regions of the world were PCB was produced or used.

Before people realized how harmful PCBs were, many companies freely released them into the environment. Electric utilities, for example, dumped copious amounts into nearby rivers and streams. Early attempts at proper disposal such as landfilling also proved problematic, as few landfills were equipped to contain PCBs, which meant that contamination occurred both at the site of original use and in remote locations. The goal of PCB remediation is to remove PCB from vulnerable environments and to ensure that it is properly handled and disposed of.

Some sites are known sources of PCB contamination, while others may be suspected. The first step in PCB remediation is usually testing to determine the extent of the contamination, find out where it is concentrated, and to locate the source, if possible. Then, contaminated materials must be removed or sterilized. Equipment, for example, may be sterilized during PCB remediation, while contaminated soil can be dug up and backfilled with clean soil.

Remediation can involve chemical or microbial treatment of a site, with chemicals or microbes breaking down the PCB so that it is no longer harmful. Destruction can also be accomplished with several treatment methods, including exposure to very high heat. Under certain circumstances, contamination may also be left in situ and capped. During PCB cleanup, remediation services want to avoid creating another problem; for example, incomplete combustion can lead to the formation of dioxins, another contaminant of concern.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Feb 13, 2012

@David09 - It’s not just the ocean where they find this stuff. They can find it in the soil too, so you need PCB soil remediation efforts to be used there too.

The usual culprits are natural gas facilities. Some people like to jump on this point and make utilities the big, bad boogeyman of the energy world.

There’s no doubt that they do pollute, but I am not ready to make them the bad guys just yet. The EPA simply needs to issue stringent regulations for industry and ensure that all utilities follow them.

By David09 — On Feb 12, 2012

@NathanG - I think that the methods described are similar to petroleum remediation, like the massive oil spill by BP in the Gulf a few years back.

There they tried microbial cleanup processes as well as heat processes and other methods like that. What they eventually discovered is that nature did a better cleanup process on its own.

A year after the spill much of the oil was no longer present, because the ocean’s own microbes had eaten it up. I am certainly not recommending that. What works for oil may not work for chemicals.

I think that chemicals pose a greater health hazard actually, and so PCB remediation efforts should be more aggressive in that regard.

By NathanG — On Feb 12, 2012

@Mammmood - Well, the problem with rivers is that they are currents, not cesspools. The stuff that gets dumped into them gets carried along from the source down into other currents, and then who knows where it ends up.

I would think that PCB sampling would have to include not only the source river but any possible currents within a nearby radius. Even then at best I think that you can only contain most of the damage but not completely eliminate it.

By Mammmood — On Feb 11, 2012

Don’t think that just because PCBs have been banned that cleanup processes are complete and little work needs to be done.

The fact is that there are still some rivers that are still contaminated with PCBs and to this day cleanup processes are underway. I used to live in New Jersey when it was a known fact that the Hudson River had been contaminated with PCBs as a result of the dumps from various utility companies.

To this day they are still doing cleanup operations. When that stuff gets into the water it’s a challenge to remove it, and I don’t believe that they started the cleanup right away after the bans were put in place. Otherwise I think it wouldn’t take this long.

By anon179370 — On May 23, 2011

i have PCB's. what should i do.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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