Environmental PCB forensics: processes and issues

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PCB forensic science is the process of identifying the source(s) of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at a site in the context of a legal proceeding to aid in identifying the party(s) responsible for the cost of environmental remediation. The PCB forensic scientist should assemble and examine all the evidence and then develop opinions about sources, discharges, deposition, fate, transport, environmental impact, and other issues at dispute among the parties. PCBs are complex mixtures of compounds (Aroclors in USA) that can simultaneously reveal information about the source of the contamination, but also provide confounding and contradictory evidence. The issues are technically complex and the expert must systematically evaluate the facts, employ deep technical expertise, and use dispassionate judgment to provide expert opinions that assist the judge, jury, arbitrator, or allocator in rendering their decision as to the responsible party(s) or an apportionment of that responsibility. Different PCB products were used and disposed of that have characteristic congener mixture profiles. In the environment, these profiles can mix and weather over decades. Sampling and analysis can generate further uncertainties, notably the possible misidentification of Aroclors. The expert’s challenge is to present their opinions clearly and authoritatively without overrepresenting the facts and data. This paper focuses on PCB contamination of sediment in aqueous sediment and uses a case study to illustrate application of forensic principles.

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    Jensen’s “The PCB Story,” offers a thorough review of the discovery and early years of environmental PCBs. This article was intended by Jensen to commemorate this historic tale before we all moved on to other scientific challenges (personal communication from Sören Jensen, 2010). Little did he know how the PCB Story would play out in the coming decades.

  2. 2.

    The percentages are calculated from the values in column 5 of Table 1.14, p. 72. Note: one additional US manufacturer accounted for only 0.03% of the worldwide production.

  3. 3.

    Aroclor® is Monsanto’s tradename for its brand of chlorinated aromatics, including biphenyls. The trademark symbol is omitted throughout this text for clarity. Also, in context, the term “Aroclor” may be inclusive for other brands such as Kaneclor, Chlophen, Phenoclor, Inerteen, and Pydraul. A detailed list of trade names and other designations of PCB products is in Erickson (1997).

  4. 4.

    There are 209 possible distinct chemical compounds that are PCBs. Each individual compound is a congener ranging from three monochlorobiphenyls up to one decachlorobiphenyl.

  5. 5.

    Exceptions to this generalization would be biomagnification through the food chain or if the sediment were mixed with a sediment that contained a higher concentration of PCBs.

  6. 6.

    Certain chemical processes can inadvertently synthesize PCBs as by-products to the intended chemical reactions, leaving those PCBs in the commercial product or in product waste. Examples include inks and pigments. By-product PCBs can be a single congener or complex mixtures but do not resemble the commercial PCB mixtures.


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This work is based on numerous forensic consulting engagements by the author. The work upon which this article was based was presented at the 10th International PCB Workshop, Krakow, Poland 29 August 2018. The author would like to thank the colleagues who provided input, especially regarding the case study.

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The author would like to thank the Iowa Superfund Research Program for providing travel funds.

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Correspondence to Mitchell D. Erickson.

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Erickson, M.D. Environmental PCB forensics: processes and issues. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2020).

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  • Environmental contamination
  • Expert
  • Fingerprint
  • Forensic
  • Litigation
  • PCBs
  • Polychlorinated biphenyl
  • Weathering
  • Responsible party
  • Sediment