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Toxic PCBs Still Present in Wood Floor Finishes

Jan 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The wood floor finish Fabulon, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, may be a significant source of the banned, toxic substances known as PCBs, U.S. researchers reported Wednesday.  Polychlorinated biphenyls—or PCBs—are not found in nature and are mixtures of up to 209 individual chlorinated compounds, known as congeners.  PCBs are oily liquids or solids that are colorless to light yellow, have no known smell or taste, and—in some cases—can exist as a vapor in air.  Many commercial PCB mixtures are known in the U.S. by the trade name Aroclor.

PCB manufacture was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 because it was found that they build up in the environment and can cause harmful health effects.  Because they don't burn easily and are good insulators, PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment.  Products made prior to the 1977 ban that may contain PCBs include old fluorescent lighting fixtures and electrical devices containing PCB capacitors and old microscope and hydraulic oils.

A case study conducted in the homes of older women found those with a PCB-containing wood floor finish sold under the brand name Fabulon had very high indoor air, dust, and blood levels of PCBs—50 years after the floors were installed.  "Use of a commercially available PCB-containing wood floor finish in residences during the 1950s and 1960s is an overlooked but potentially important source of current PCB exposure in the general population," Ruthann Rudel of the Silent Spring Institute near Boston and colleagues wrote in their report.  Many buildings, including schools, may still harbor PCB-containing floor finishes or other products, they wrote in the BioMed Central journal Environmental Health.  Rudel and colleagues tested the bodies and homes of 120 women living on Cape Cod in Massachusetts who took part in a breast cancer study.  "Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent pollutants identified worldwide as human blood and breast milk contaminants," they wrote.  "In an earlier study, we detected PCBs in indoor air in 31 percent of 120 homes on Cape Cod," they wrote.  Additional testing revealed  residents had very high PCBs blood levels—above the 95th percentile for the U.S. population.  The women participating in the study lived for 10 years or longer in homes where Fabulon had been used. "Serum concentrations in residents and air and dust concentrations were especially high in a home where a resident reported use of PCB-containing floor finish in the past, and where the floor of one room was sanded and refinished just prior to sample collection," the researchers wrote.

Studies show PCPs damage the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as cause breast cancer and accumulate in body fat over time.  The most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are skin conditions such as acne and rashes; however, studies in exposed workers revealed changes in blood and urine that may indicate liver damage.  Animal studies revealed development of anemia; acne-like skin conditions; liver, stomach, and thyroid gland injuries; changes in the immune system; behavioral alterations; and impaired reproduction.

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