Advisory for Southern Berkshire County
August 3, 2012
On the evening of August 1, a fire began at TCI chemical plant, a transformer recycling company, in an industrial area in Ghent, NY — just a few miles from the Massachusetts border. Transformers contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which are a class of chemical compounds. Massachusetts and New York issued a “shelter-in-place” order for a 15 mile radius of the plant. The Massachusetts order was lifted at 4:30 on August 2, 2012.
The results from the testing showed no evidence of contamination and now allows residents of the communities of Alford, Great Barrington, Tyringham, Monterey, Otis, Egremont, Mount Washington, Sheffield, New Marlborough and Sandisfield to return to regular, outdoor activities.
The overnight testing was completed and reviewed by members of the Massachusetts National Guard Civil Support Team (CST), Department of Fire Services (DFS) HazMat Teams, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Department of Public Health (DPH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Are there health concerns for Massachusetts residents related to the chemical fire in Ghent, New York?
Residents impacted by the smoke contamination/plume who have a pre-existing respiratory condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, or emphysema may feel an exacerbation of symptoms. Individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular disease may also be at increased risk for health impacts.
Anyone feeling adverse effects should seek medical attention from their provider.
What do we know about the chemicals that could be contained in the fire?
The primary concerns are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). When PCBs burn, they transform into other chemicals that can be more acutely toxic including polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs).
Should I be concerned about health effects related to PCBs and PCDFs?
It is unlikely the general public will be exposed to levels of these chemicals that would result in serious health impacts. Once environmental data is available the extent of any impact on resident’s health can be better assessed.
What are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)?
PCBs are mixtures of up to 209 individual chemicals called “congeners” that are man made. There are no known natural sources of PCBs. Many commercial PCB mixtures are known in the U.S. by the trade name Aroclor. PCBs are either oily liquids or solids. PCBs have no known smell or taste.
What are PCBs used for?
PCBs are used in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. They are also used in products such as fluorescent lighting fixtures, caulking materials, elastic sealants, and old microscope and hydraulic oils. PCBs have not been manufactured in the U.S. since 1977. However, there are still many old products that contain PCBs and, because they do not break down easily, they remain in the environment.
How may exposure to PCBs affect my health?
PCBs have very low potential for producing acute toxic effects. The likelihood of health effects is related to the amount and duration of exposure to PCBs. Studies of exposed workers have shown the greatest effects. These effects can include skin lesions or irritations, fatigue, and increased pigmentation of the skin and nails. Chronic effects in workers can occur after weeks or years of exposure or long after initial exposure to PCBs. A number of studies have suggested that these effects include immune system suppression, liver damage, neurological effects, and possibly cancer. Studies have reported that infants born to mothers who were environmentally or occupationally exposed to PCBs had decreases in birth weight and abnormal responses in tests of infant behavior. PCBs are not known to cause birth defects.
What happens when PCBs burn?
When PCBs burn they can transform into other chemical compounds. By-products of combustion of PCBs include hydrogen chloride, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) (dioxins), and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (furans) (PCDFs).
How may exposure to PCDFs affect my health?
Limited data exists to describe health effects related to inhalation or skin exposure to PCDFs. What is known about health effects is derived from high level exposures relating to accidental poisoning from food containing PCDF. Health effects caused by exposure to PCDFs are skin and eye irritation, including severe acne, darkened skin color, and swollen eye lids with discharge. Poisoning from PCDF can also cause vomiting and diarrhea, anemia, more frequent lung infections, numbness, effects on the nervous system, and mild changes in the liver. Children born to exposed mothers have been reported to have skin irritation and more difficulty learning.