UI Research Identifies Major Source of Airborne PCBs

Image source: Boston University School of Public Health

Sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs, from the bottom of the New Bedford Harbor is the No. 1 source of airborne PCBs in the neighborhoods surrounding the port, according to new research by the University of Iowa and Boston University School of Public Health.

In fact, airborne PCB emissions from the harbor are so high that researchers say it is the single largest continuous source of airborne PCBs ever measured from natural waters in the U.S. and Canada.

“Our study shows that people in the neighborhoods around the harbor are being exposed to airborne PCBs and that those PCBs are coming from the harbor, not from a variety of sources,” said Keri Hornbuckle, professor of civil and environmental engineering at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, and core leader of the Iowa Superfund Research Program.

Researchers used calculated emissions and atmospheric dispersion modeling to confirm New Bedford Harbor as the source of airborne PCBs.

PCBs are released from the sludge at the bottom of the port and escape into the water and air.

Researchers worked with residents affiliated with Hands Across the River Coalition to select air sampling locations at 18 sites in New Bedford, Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Acushnet. Air samples were taken during three consecutive periods from July to November, 2015. The highest readings for airborne PCBs were from air sampling locations closest to the harbor.

The East Coast harbor is one of the largest PCB Superfund sites in the nation, currently undergoing clean-up.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has monitored airborne PCB levels near the harbor since 1999, the levels measured in this study are consistent with levels measured by EPA, however this is the first time that researchers have focused on the harbor as a unique source of airborne PCBs.

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