Coming to terms with invisible killer
Failure to dispose of polychlorinated biphenyl transformer oil in the correct manner can have a devastating impact on the environment, and put human health at risk from cancer, immune system disorders and liver disease. In light of this, Vieät Nam is taki
Serious health problems in poultry in Belgium in January, 1999, were caused by the discharge of about 25 litres of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) transformer oil.
The oil, which was poured into a waste-collection unit for recycling into animal feed, killed thousands of chickens worth a total of about US$1 billion. However, indirect costs are estimated to be three times higher - and yet, the proper disposal of the 25 litres of transformer oil would have cost only about $1,000.
This was one of the most recent cases of PCB contamination worldwide. Other wellknown incidents were the Yusho and the Yu-Cheng poisonings of edible rice oils in Japan in 1968, and in Taiwan in 1979 repectively. In both cases, PCBs from hydraulic oils leaked into edible oils, which were sold and consumed by thousands of people. Severe toxic effects were detected in both instances.
PCBs are one of the 12 classes of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which, because of their potential for damage to human health and the environment, were targeted for elimination by the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2001.
Owing to their excellent properties, longevity, non-flammability, and resistance to thermal and chemical degradation, PCBs have been used as dielectric (insulating) fluid for transformers and capacitors, heat conductive liquid in hydraulic and heat transformer systems, as plasticisers in artificial rubber, and as an ingredient in paint, ink, carbonless copy paper, adhesives, lubricants, sealants and caulking materials.
PCBs have also been used as pesticide extenders, fire retardants in fabrics, carpets, polyurethane foam - and as lubricants in microscope oils, brake linings and cutting oils. But the big downside is that chemists describe PCBs as invisible killers.
Identified actual or potential ill effects associated with PCBs include cancer, reproductive and development toxicity, impaired immune function, and damage to the central nervous system and liver. Realising this, many countries stopped PCB production in the late 1970s and built an international legal document to protect humans and the environment from toxic chemicals.
On May 22, 2001, the Stockholm Convention on POPs was adopted by 152 countries and territories. It became effective on May 19, 2004. Its overall objective is to protect human health and the environment from 12 classes of POPs. This has now been extended to 23 classes.
POPs are substances that possess toxic characteristics, are persistent, accumulate in the fatty tissues of most living organisms, and are likely to cause significant adverse human health and environmental effects. As of February last year, 179 countries and territories, including Vieät Nam, have ratified the Stockholm Convention. The convention requires identification and safe management of POP stockpiles and environmental safe disposal of waste containing, consisting of, or contaminated with POPs.
The convention calls for the elimination of PCBs used as industrial chemicals. Any remaining PCB oils, equipment and waste have to be dealt with by 2028.
PCBs in Vieät Nam
Vieät Nam has adopted two measures to get rid of POPs and PCBs. The first was in 2006 when it adopted a National Implementation Plan to reduce PCBs in line with the Stockholm agreement. Vieät Nam was the 14th nation to sign up.
The second measure was the management of PCBs and other POPs as a priority under the National Strategy for Environment Protection introduced shortly afterwards.
Vieät Nam's National Implementation Plan calls for the reduction of PCBs into the environment, the elimination of PCBs in equipment and facilities by 2020 and the safe disposal of PCBs by 2028. The plan was approved by the Prime Minister in Decision l84/2006/QD-TTg on August 10, 2006.
A proposal on the safe management and then, later, the elimination of PCBs in the electric power industry and in industrial products is one of the main proposals in the plan.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) approved the Vieät Nam PCB management project in May, 2009. The five-year plan is being carried out by its Pollution Control Department, the Ministry of Industry and Trade's (MOIT) Industrial Safety Techniques and Environment Agency, and Vieät Nam Electricity (EVN).
The project, financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has been carried out since March 2010 in 63 provinces/cities nationwide. It has a total budget of $17.5 million, of which Official Development Aid (ODA) covers $7 million.
Speaking at a workshop on Vieät Nam PCB management in Haï Long City, Traàn Theá Loaõn, deputy chief of the Vieät Nam Environment Administration's Pollution Control Department said: "The project has made a strong contribution to supporting the ministry in safely managing PCBs by developing a comprehensive legal framework. It has also strengthened the capacity of officials at central and local levels on PCBs management and hazardous waste management as well."
According to project manager Phaïm Maïnh Hoaøi, Vieät Nam has never produced PCBs but once imported them in industrial oils, including hydraulic oils, air turbine oil, lubricating oil and plastic additives. Most commonly, PCBs have been used as dielectric fluid in electric transformers.
"Before 1985, Vieät Nam annually imported about 27,000 to 30,000 metric tonnes of PCBs oil in electrical equipment. Significant amount of PCBs still exist in the country, primarily in oils used in electrical transformers and capacitors," Hoaøi said. (EVN owns about 70 per cent of all electrical generating equipment.)
Pollution control, especially preventing toxic contamination, has become a priority in the 21st century. It is the price we must all pay if we want to survive in a highly industrialised world.
The Vieät Nam Electricity has contributed to the nation’s efforts to protect human health and the environment from toxic transformer oil.
Official Nguyeãn Maïnh Cöôøng from Quaûng Ninh Electricity Company explains how hard it is to safely manage their PCB contaminated transformers.
Victims of Yusho PCBs contamination of edible rice oils in Japan in 1968.