A new, unpublished study is turning the spotlight onto a chemical that was banned in the United States 35 years ago, but is still present today in everything from yellow clothing, to yellow paper and other consumer products using yellow pigments. Researchers say traces of polychlorinated biphenyls — or PCBs — are leaching out of everyday products found around the globe.
But if PCBs are banned, how can this be possible? That’s because PCB-11, the form of the chemical found in yellow dyes, inks and paints, is an unintentional byproduct of pigment manufacturing, explains Scientific American, and therefore is exempt from U.S. laws regulating the compounds.
PCB-11 showed up in almost all samples of paper products sold in 26 countries and clothing sold here in the U.S., the researchers say in the study, which is undergoing peer review and is expected to be published this year.
Although it doesn’t accumulate in the human body or waterways like other PCBs, it’s still a matter of concern, the study’s authors say.
“It’s out there in levels that are worrisome,” said Lisa Rodenburg, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Rutgers University and senior author of the study. “Even at the parts per billion levels, if you find it in almost everything you test, that means people are in almost constant contact.”
There are no studies on the health effects due to coming into contact with trace amounts of PCB-11, unlike the old, banned PCBs which have been linked to reduced IQs, cancer and suppressed immune systems.
However, because it’s showing up in so many products used by people, that seems to indicate that people are constantly exposed to PCB-11, which allows for it to show up in tests. The study found that all 28 samples of non-U.S., ink-treated paper products, including advertisements, maps, postcards, napkins and brochures, contained PCB-11 in the parts-per-billion range. U.S. paper products had PCB-11 in 15 of the 18 paper products tested.
Furthermore, all the 16 pieces of clothing tested that are sold in the U.S. contained PCB-11, mostly kids’ items bought at Walmart but manufactured overseas.
“PCB 11 is ubiquitously present as a by-product in commercial pigment applications, particularly in printed materials,” the authors say in the draft of the new study.
Federal regulations “recognize that some products (e.g., pigments and dyes) contain inadvertently generated PCBs,” an Environmental Protection Agency spokespersons said.
These compounds can be excluded and aren’t regulated “as long as they are reported to EPA and the PCB concentrations do not exceed specified limits,” she said, adding that the EPA is looking into any potential risks from PCB-11.
The study’s lead researcher notes that while we still don’t know what effect there could be, if any, from PCB-11 exposure, the fact that it appears to be everywhere is a cause for concern.
That idea is echoed by Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany-SUNY.
“Everyone has ignored the lower chlorinated congeners, primarily because they are not persistent and are relatively easily metabolized in the human body,” he explained to Scientific American, adding that it’s a “very real and important issue.”
“If they are in the air and one breathes them in every day, there will be continuous exposure to what I suspect are very toxic substances,” he explained.
Meanwhile the paint industry is paying attention, says the vice president at the American Coatings Association, which represents paint manufacturers.
“We’ve been aware of it and we’ve alerted the pigment manufacturers, but as of right now, it’s an unavoidable byproduct in these pigments.”
You can follow MBQ on Twitter if you want, PCB-free: @marybethquirk
Yellow Pigments in Clothing and Paper Contain Long-Banned Chemical [Scientific American]