SAIPAN: WHAT PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT PCB CONTAMINATION

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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 28, 2000 – Saipan Tribune)---Amid the controversy surrounding the widespread contamination of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Tanapag, the Department of Public Health has sought the assistance of the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in carrying out a health assessment of residents in the village.

Training of local doctors, nurses, and health and environment staff was conducted this week by Dr. Gershon H. Bergeisen from ATSDR. He gave a lecture on PCBs and pointers on how to conduct a medical evaluation, which would include an exposure history.

Dr. Bergeisen sat down with Saipan Tribune Staff Reporter Lindablue F. Romero to explain the issues surrounding PCBs.

Question: What happens when one gets exposed to PCBs?

Answer: The reaction of the body to PCBs varies in every person. People who have liver disease may get sicker than those who don't have liver disease. For the most part, nothing will happen because we are exposed to PCBs everyday.

We all have PCBs in our body and wherever you go there are PCBs. People who are exposed to PCBs usually inhale it and sometimes get it in their mouth. For example, if they did not wash their hands when they eat or they smoke a cigarette without washing their hands first, they transfer the PCBs into their mouth. This is what usually happens to people who are exposed to PCBs in the workplace.

There are PCBs in the air, which comes from automobile exhaust; the airplanes that fly to the islands produce PCBs from burning gasoline. At the same time, PCBs produced in other parts of the world drift through the air and when it rains, the rainwater brings that to the islands.

There are also PCBs in the water. Most cities in the United States have PCBs in the water. There are also PCBs in soil, but for the most part it get stuck in the dirt. They could have inhaled the dust from those PCBs but the exposure here is minimal.

It is not a good thing to be exposed to PCBs, but it is not something that you will drop dead over tomorrow, when you get exposed.

Q: If we get exposed to PCBs every day as you said, does it mean that I should get worried too?

A: People who have been through a lot of exposure to PCBs historically, are workers -- those who have built the capacitors or who have everyday contact with the oil. And so far, nobody has ever died of PCB exposure.

In 1987, there was a PCB transformer accident in Guam and nine workers were exposed to PCBs. When they measured the PCB levels in the workers, one had a level of 14 ppb (parts per billion). These people had massive exposure all at once and nobody died.

I can understand why people are afraid of PCBs. But as people start learning more about it, they will become more assured and they won't be as much worried as they are now, if they know a lot about PCBs.

So people do not have really to worry that they are going to get real sick because of exposure to PCBs, that they have in the past. But then again, people will really worry because it is an unknown entity.

Q: In training the local medical staff, what kind of health evaluation will be done here?

A: I gave a lecture to the physicians in the hospital about PCBs so the doctors there now know more about it, which gives them confidence on what to say when patients come to have a check up on PCBs. The concern of the people in Tanapag is how much PCBs were they exposed to from the transformers? That's why we will do an evaluation of the health of the people and get an exposure history. This will cover the history of a problem of a certain disease that one is experiencing, family history. So the training that I taught was how to get an exposure history.

In exposure history, the doctor will try to get as much information to the patient on what kind of work has he been doing, even at home. So through exposure history, you get an idea on how much PCB a person has been exposed to and how much is in his body.

Q: In the food chain, how do we get PCBs in our daily food intake?

A: In the community, exposure to PCBs for the most part is in fish. We don't really know if there's PCB in salt water fish because the ocean is very big so PCB in the ocean gets diluted tremendously. What we found is that there's more PCB concentration in fish from fresh water, because the lake is more a close area. So people who eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- if they have been doing that for the past 17 years or more -- will have more PCB exposure than those who eat fish say, once a month.

The fish that's usually contaminated is catfish and trout. So what we do is we also teach people how to prepare fish. So we don't tell them to stop eating fish because it is part of their culture or their tradition. We just teach them how to prepare it properly. You can grill it or bake it in the over and make sure the droppings fall away from the fish. When you cook fish, you should take out the skin so the exposure to PCB is very minimal. So from now on, when I cook the fish, I will not eat the head, the eyes. I will take out the skin and I won't eat the liver.

What we found also is there's also a lot of PCB in soil, but very little is taken into plants. If it is taken into plants, it usually gets into the leaf, not into the fruit. And whenever it gets into the fruit, it usually gets into the skin. So when you eat an apple, you peel it. In sweet potatoes, it will be in the skin too, so you take out the skin; and the same thing with carrots.

Q: Would you say that the CNMI has responded well in handling the situation?

A: DEQ has done a lot of work in handling this problem. The U.S. Army Corps, I understand, has removed some contaminated soil and still has to clean the cemetery. But DEQ has taken a lot of precautions and is doing its best in warning people about where they should go and not go. I think DEQ is doing an excellent job. In addition to this, DEQ has contacted the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be doing a risk assessment in the area.

What the Secretary (Joseph Kevin Villagomez) has done is very good. He just does not want to check if the people have been exposed to PCB. He wants to know what kind of health problems the people in the village have, because maybe they are not getting enough health care. So I hope people would go and have themselves checked.

In due time, as people get familiar with the health effects of PCBs, they will start trusting their doctors, who are trained, and they will calm down. But, of course, this will not happen overnight.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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