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PCB tracking worldwide

Up till now an environmentally sound management and elimination of PCBs worldwide remains a real challenge. That is why the first step toward PCBs regulation shall be developing and keeping record of PCBs, which may help achieve the goals within the timeframes set by the Stockholm Convention and ultimately reach a PCB-free world.  

The industrial production of PCB started in the USA in the 1930s; after the WWII Europe also joined in. In the late 1960s the total volume of production reached 60.000t/year. However, after a number of serious PCB-related accidents, after 1983 most countries, except some in Eastern Europe, stopped PCB production. For example, the Russian Federation stopped producing PCB only in the period 1987-1993. In total, in 1929-1989 there were produced 1.5 million tons of PCBs.

Most countries in the world have never produced PCBs. However, many have imported PCBs and used them as commercial mixtures, and in industrial machinery, including electrical equipment. Generally, there is no available information about how much PCBs and to which country they were imported. In addition, PCB-containing equipment was often exported to developing countries as part of international aid with no specification given in regard to the POPs concentration, even after the Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal was signed. Even in the USA and countries in Western Europe it is rarely possible to get exact information on the amount of PCBs in the country. There is no reliable data for either the total volume of PCB import, or for the total amount of PCB currently in use. Similarly, there is no information about the use of PCBs in electrical equipment; in gas, water and oil pipelines; steel bridges, reservoirs, and in a number of agents used for treating steel products as anticorrosive additive to paints, in buildings as thickener, and in small-sized equipment such as control equipment. Yet, the most important task is to get information about where PCBs have been used and what has been contaminated. The seriousness of this challenge, which has been aggravated by the improper use and treatment of PCBs, can be truly assessed only after the extent of pollution is known.  

Available studies have identified that almost a half (48%) of all PCBs produced was used for making transformer oil, approximately 21% - for small-sized capacitors, 10% - for other “normally closed” systems, and around 21% - for “for open types of use”. Although it is considered that 97% of all general-purpose PCBs were used in the Northern hemisphere, it should be noted that in the past 70 years large amounts of PCBs were moved intentionally or unintentionally to the Southern hemisphere.

Based on the experience of the USA and countries of the Western Europe, one may assume that PCBs are present in all power systems, except those hermetically sealed from the outer world. If PCBs were imported into a country, these chemicals are very likely to be found in the power supply systems and related sectors. The contamination degree of a specific power system may vary; as for the scope of the potential PCBs use, it might be extremely wide.

The list of some closed, partially open, and open ways of use of PCBs:

Closed systems:

  1. Insulation and/or cooling liquids in transformers
  2. Liquid insulators in capacitors
  3. Circuit breakers

Partially open systems:

  1. Liquid heat-transfer medium
  2. Hydraulic liquid in lifting facilities, trucks and high-pressure pumps
  3. Vacuum pumps
  4. Voltage regulators
  5. Liquid-filled electrical cables
  6. Liquid-filled automatic circuit-breakers

Open systems:

  1. Paints
  2. Lubricating fluids in oils and lubricants
  3. Water-repellent additives for impregnation, and flammable inhibitors for wood, paper, textile, and leather products.
  4. Laminating additives in the pulp and paper industry
  5. Additives to glue, sealers, and corrosion-resistant coats
  6. Base for insecticides
  7. Catalyst support for polymerization of petroleum products
  8. Immersion oils for microscopes
  9. Base for pesticides
  10.  Cable coating/casing

 

As a result of improper management of contaminated materials a large-scale cross-contamination has occurred.  The PCBs have taught us a lesson: people may cause cross-contamination of all parts of the environment, including soil, water, sedimentary rocks, and air, by uncontrolled release and movement of one of the first twelve POPs. The improper treatment of electrical equipment, which shall be decommissioned, is typical in the first place for developing countries. Companies normally see no commercial value in electrical equipment which can’t be repaired or reused, which is why they treat it as waste – careless or without any precaution, neglecting the fact that it may have a negative impact on human health or on the environment.

Without reliable data about the presence of PCBs, the whole regulation system seems inadequate, which can be seen in many regions of the world. If we want to reduce the harmful effects of PCBs, we shall regard collecting information about specific types and the scope of PCB contamination as a critically important task. Generally, in each particular case it is important to set priorities and allocate sufficient budget means in order to decommission or replace PCB-containing or PCB–contaminated equipment. To accomplish the task to dispose the PCB-containing equipment by 2015 and to design an ecologically sound system of PCB management by 2028, a considerable effort shall be taken with the aim to develop a complete reliable record of all contaminated equipment, systematize collected data, set the priorities right, provide safe treatment of PCBs at all consecutive stages, and control the management of the equipment until the stage where PCBs are safely disposed or eliminated. Judging by the experience of the West, one might expect that this process will be difficult, because it will require immediate actions from all parties. Otherwise, this task may take much more time to accomplish than expected.

Collecting reliable data is probably one of the most challenging tasks, which is however of crucial importance for initiating the programmes of stocking, recycling and disposing of PCBs. Experience shows that more often than not many decisions are taken basing on preliminary information, rather than on reliable and exact data.

In developed countries the process of identifying, counting, checking and replacing the PCB-containing equipment is slowly taking pace. For example, Switzerland started the preliminary count of PCB-containing electrical equipment in 1983, and planned to dispose all PCB-containing equipment by August 1998. By and large, the goal has been achieved. Yet, the country still possesses a certain number of small-sized and low-voltage PCB-containing capacitors in use, and sometimes new sources of PCB are discovered which were unknown before. Nowadays, many countries in the Northern hemisphere pay special attention to the open sources of PCBs, taking it for the most problematic source of negative effect. The Swiss experience, however, demonstrates that many municipal buildings, built in 1955-1983, often have PCBs too in elastic sealers and paints put on steel and concrete. In 2003 the Federal Office for the Environment of Switzerland issued a decree requiring that such buildings be checked for PCBs, and urged the government to take necessary measures to protect people and the environment. Similar regulations exist in the USA, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Austria.

Whereas in developed countries the amount of PCBs in closed systems is normally “under control”, in developing countriesa considerable part of PCB-containing or –contaminated equipment is still in use, which might be explained by the high technical and financial costs of safe and ecologically harmless replacement of PCB-contaminated equipment.