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PCBs and Health
by Les Benedict
Environment Division - St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

On the afternoon on February 26, 1996, local health leaders and community members met with experts to discuss recent studies on Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and their health effects.

Of concern to everyone was the controversial Record of Decision (ROD) amendment proposal made by General Motors (GM) and being considered by EPA for the GM National Priority List (NPL) site which both adjoins and is partially located in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. The change would allow storage of untreated PCB contaminated materials on site at levels up to 500 parts per million (ppm). Original plans were to treat materials 10 ppm PCBs and greater. The proposed plan will save GM $15 million dollars and will place 171,000 cubic yards of toxic waste on the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

This, according to the Tribe and to it's community members is unacceptable and will continue to expose Mohawks to PCBs indefinitely.

Community members Paul and Loran Thompson described the rich farmland and natural setting of Ahnawate (Raquette Point) and the surrounding area before it became an industrial dumping ground. The Thompsons said that the plants (industrial) "deprived us of our livelihood" and has forced us to choose alternate means of support such as business, since coming here.

David Arquette, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) Environmental Specialist, provided a summary of the GM site history; it's Feasibility Study, Remedial Investigation, Preliminary Remedial Action Plan and Record of Decision.

Dave emphasized data from the New York State Department of Conservation's Wildlife Pathology Unit (NYSDEC, WPU), under the direction of Dr. Ward Stone, which shows that contamination is leaving the site and migrating to Turtle Creek, into "Contaminant Cove" and into the St. Lawrence River.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, USEPA, Research Triangle Park, then discussed studies on PCBs and dioxin like compounds and their associated health effects.

She explained how PCBs and other dioxin like compounds, at low concentrations, were affecting hormonal and immunological systems. An analogy of a lock-and-key system was used to describe how PCBs act like hormones responsible for cell growth and differentation.

In a normal system, the lock (DNA) could be activated only at precise moments by a key (regulatory hormones). A false key, such as PCBs, could cause cells to grow and differentiate at the wrong times. This situation is devastating and can cause cancer. In situations where cells rapidly change and divide, such as in the reproductive system or in developing fetuses, the results are birth defects. The defects may be readily apparent, such as in physical deformities or be more subtle and hard to measure, such as in learning disabilities.

Another effect of PCBs is called "population shift" and is when the onset of a disease, such as diabetes, moves to a lower age group than it normally is expected to occur. This particular situation may be of extreme significance to Native American populations that already have a high incidence of diabetes.

Dr. Mary Fadden, SRMT, Natural Resource Damage Assessment Administrative Coordinator, discussed PCBs effects on animals in lab studies. Studies she worked on showed that dogs lost the function of the thyroid gland. The thyroid plays a major role in metabolism.

In summary, the meeting was very informative for community members and local health providers. It is hoped that Akwesasne does not become the next testimony to PCB case history.