When you are a public protector and your hands are tied, frustration can weave like a dark thread through your words — and so it was with G. P. (Venti) Venkageswaran when I spoke with him recently about the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in old fluorescent light fixtures.
Venkageswaran works in the waste reduction office of Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment. We were talking about how to get rid of a fixture made prior to the banning of PCBs in 1980.
Normally, if you’ve got PCBs, you have to send them to an approved storage site where they can be held until destroyed.
But with pre-1980 fluorescent light fixtures, Ontario says that as long as you don’t have more than forty, you can treat them like ordinary garbage, and send them to a landfill site.
« That’s the way the rule is, and that’s the way I have to tell you it is at the moment,’’ Venkageswaran said. « If someone calls me (and asks what to do with his fixtures) I’d say we would prefer that he find a company that dismantles them and takes the PCB container to a registered storage site.’’
However, he acknowledged, he would have no power to stop the person from sending them to a landfill as long as there were no more than forty involved.
Prior to 1980, PCBs were used in what is called ballast, a medium that smoothes fluctuations in the strength of electric current. A pre-1980 ballast container is leak-proof and about the size of two ice cubes laid side by side.
According to Tom Bell, director of operations and engineering for Toronto Hydro, you could drive a truck over a container and it wouldn’t break. But in a landfill, the container will eventually corrode and begin to leak.
A ballast container holds only a very small amount of PCBs — 17.2 millilitres, weighing 23.6 grams.
I suspect that the exemption that allows up to forty of these containers to go to a landfill was based on treating PCBs as a poison. With poisons, release below a minimum level is safe.
However, research during the past five years has been saying that this way of looking at PCBs is wrong. It suggests that PCBs and other organochlorines mimic hormones. If that’s the case, it’s not the amount of PCBs in a person’s body that matters. It’s when, and how, they mimic.
Hormones are messengers that carry instructions to cells that control the growth and operation our bodies. So, the tiniest amount of a PCB may be enough to wreak havoc if it causes the wrong message to be delivered, or if it blocks delivery of a correct message.
Mimics, or disruptors as they are sometimes called, are being blamed as one of the main causes of the astonishing increase in breast and testicular cancers, as well as genital deformation in babies and the sharp decline in male sperm counts.
So, any leakage of a PCB from a landfill, regardless of how little, is reason for alarm.
In the new City of Toronto, there are some 350 registered storage sites for PCBs. They contain thousands of PCB fluorescent light ballasts. How many pre-1980 fluorescent fixtures remain in operation, no one knows. However, any still in use will soon be discarded because their lifespan is 20 to 25 years.
Since Toronto has emphatically rejected incineration as unsafe, the PCBs in storage have been awaiting an alternative method of destruction. And an alternative is available.
A company called Eco Logic, of Rockwood, about 12 kilometres north east of Guelph, has developed a process that uses hydrogen to break down PCBs chemically into methane, water vapour, hydrochloric acid and carbon monoxide.
All that remains is to pick a site for an Eco Logic plant and to gain community approval for it. Toronto Hydro, an enthusiastic supporter of Eco Logic, will deliver PCBs to the plant from storage sites.
Now all that’s needed is a change in the thinking at Queen’s Park that allows PCBs from fluorescent lights to go to the dump.