Eating Hudson River Fish Risky Far South of PCB Source

By Cat Lazaroff

NEW YORK, New York, January 10, 2000 (ENS) - Contamination with toxic PCBs in the Upper Hudson River poses a serious risk to human health and the environment even far downstream of their source, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found. The finding is a small step toward an eventual cleanup of the river, which could cost polluter General Electric Corp. millions of dollars.


Parts of the Hudson River are heavily contaminated with PCBs from GE plants (All photos courtesy GE)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released two new reports showing risks from PCB contamination in the Hudson River. The reports conclude that the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) originating in the Upper Hudson River - Hudson Falls to the Federal Dam at Troy, New York - pose considerable risks even far south of Troy.

Eating fish from the Mid-Hudson River is the primary way for humans to be exposed to the PCBs.

PCBs are probable carcinogens in humans and are known to cause cancer in animals. Other long term health effects of PCBs observed in laboratory animals include a reduced ability to fight infections, low birth weights and learning problems.

The new data shows there is an increased risk of four additional cases of cancer for every 10,000 people eating an average of one meal a week of fish caught in the Mid-Hudson. This increased cancer risk is about 100 times higher than EPA's goal for protection under the federal Superfund law.


A network of 239 recovery and monitoring wells has been installed around GEs plants to monitor PCBs in the groundwater, prevent movement of PCBs to the river and recover PCB oils from the bedrock
For non-cancer health effects, the level of exposure to PCBs from eating an average of one meal a week of fish caught in the Mid-Hudson is 30 times higher than EPA's level of concern.

The new reports, called baseline risk assessments, characterize current and future threats posed by PCBs if no cleanup is implemented for the PCB contaminated sediments of the Upper Hudson River.

The reports also look at the effect of removing controls such as fish consumption advisories or fishing bans. Fish consumption advisories are now in effect for the entire Hudson River.

Decades ago, General Electric (GE) used PCBs to manufacturer insulators for electrical equipment at two plants on the Hudson, legally dumping more than a million pounds of PCBs into the river before the chemical was banned in 1976. Most of the Hudson River is a federal Superfund site, and the EPA is pursuing cleanup funds from GE.

GE has resisted becoming involved in a complicated and lengthy cleanup that could cost millions or even billions of dollars. GE's preferred approach is to allow PCB laden sediment to remain in the river, to be covered up by other sediment and to possibly degrade over time.

drill rig

With the help of a helicopter, GE contractors install a 5,000 pound drill rig on the riverbed near Bakers Falls
"These reports show that PCBs from the Upper Hudson River continue to pose risks to human health and the environment many miles downstream of where they entered the river and these risks will remain well into the future," said EPA regional administrator Jeanne Fox.

"EPA is committed to evaluating the best alternatives for addressing PCB contamination in Upper Hudson River sediments and has developed an aggressive schedule to finalize the proposed plan to protect public health and the environment," Fox said.

These new risk assessments are companion reports to two baseline risk assessments, released by EPA in August 1999, which evaluated risks to human health and the environment from PCBs in the Upper Hudson. These reports also concluded that PCB contamination in the Upper Hudson poses risks to human health and the environment.

All four risk assessment reports will be peer reviewed in May 2000. EPA will use risk assessments to help establish acceptable exposure levels and evaluate various cleanup alternatives for the PCB-contaminated sediments in the Upper Hudson River.


Commercial fishing on the Hudson has nearly vanished, and private fishers are warned of the health effects of eating Hudson River fish
In the new Human Health Risk Assessment for the Mid-Hudson River, EPA evaluated both cancer and non-cancer health effects of PCBs on children, adolescents and adults, from the Federal Dam at Troy, New York to just south of Poughkeepsie, New York.

EPA researchers found that under the baseline conditions, in which no cleanup is implemented or no institutional controls are in place, the cancer risks and non-cancer health hazards would remain above EPA's acceptable levels for the 40 year exposure period evaluated in the report.

Risks from exposure to PCBs in the river through means other than eating fish, such as drinking river water, skin contact with contaminated sediments and river water when swimming, or incidental ingestion of sediments were shown to be below EPA's levels of concern.

In November 1999, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed a lawsuit seeking to hold GE responsible for some of the economic costs of Hudson River pollution. The suit charges that PCB contamination is preventing the river from reaching its full potential as a commercial and recreational waterway, and is restricting economic development in certain areas of the state.


New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer took on GE on behalf of the Hudson River (Photo courtesy Office of the Attorney General)
Spitzer argues that the PCB laden sediments make dredging parts of the river prohibitively expensive. In order to increase river depth to at least 12 feet along its navigable stretches, as required by the state constitution, the state would have to comply with EPA rules governing toxic sediments, raising dredging costs by a factor of 10. The lawsuit is still pending. The new EPA reports illustrate that the PCB contamination has other economic costs as well - including major impacts on fisheries along the entire length of the Hudson River below the GE plants.

The risk assessment reports are available at: EPA will accept public comment on these risk assessments through January 28.