High Voltage Poisons

High Voltage Poisons

By Verónica Odriozola

In Argentina there is a still unknown quantity of PCBs still being used and at risk of being released into the environment, placing new threats on the population. Furthermore, transformers often suffer explosions that cause the emission of dangerous dioxins.

Transformer toxins end up in our bodies


Polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs belong to the family of persistent organic pollutants and have generated increasing international attention for the damage they cause to the environment and public health. The production and use of PCBs for decades, mainly in large electrical transformers, have made them today environmental pollutants present in places as distant as the Arctic and the Río de la Plata. Given the evidence of the toxicity and persistence in the environment of these pollutants, the industrialized countries banned their production and placed restrictions on their use. In Argentina, and after significant public pressure and in response to a claim from Greenpeace to the Ministry of Health, the latter approved a joint Resolution with the Ministry of Labor to ban them. However, this prohibition will be implemented in the coming years to reach the total replacement of these toxins before the year 2010 (MSAL and MTEFRH 2001).

Meanwhile and their use persists, the risk of losses or leaks to the environment exists and requires the maximum security measures on the part of those who still use them. Greenpeace calls on companies that still use PCBs to prioritize health and the work environment and the population in general, replacing them immediately, even before the deadlines established by the resolutions mentioned above.

What are PCBs?

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs, for its acronym in English, or Polychlorinated Diphenyls) make up a class of 209 chlorinated organic compounds (called congeners). Due to their chemical characteristics, stability and difficult degradability, they belong to the group of persistent organic pollutants or POPs. Although there are no known sources of PCBs in nature (ATSDR, 1995), today they can be found in the air; Water; soil; the sediments of lakes, rivers and streams; the sea; fishes; birds and other animals and on the bodies of human beings. For example, in Argentina, scientists have detected PCBs in sediments, clams, and fish from the Río de la Plata (Colombo, 1990, 1997, 2000). Of particular concern is the finding of PCBs in tarpon at such high levels that they led to a ban on fishing for this species in the Río de la Plata. There are scientific works that show the presence of PCBs in marine mammals in Argentina (Borrell, 1994), croakers from Samborombón Bay (Lanfranchi, 1998), sediments from the Uruguay River (CARU, 1998) and the Paraná River (SIHN, 1997) . PCBs reach watercourses by direct discharge to them, by being washed away by rain from a site contaminated with PCBs or by atmospheric deposition. Once they are in that course or body of water, they adhere to particles or sediments and can be ingested by living organisms and thus enter the food chain. It is precisely their presence in the food chain that causes virtually any human being to have detectable levels of PCBs stored in their body fat. In 1999, PCBs staged a scandal that caused several countries (including Argentina) to ban the importation of chickens and other foods from Belgium. Chicken contamination is estimated to have originated from the mixing of used PCB oils with commercial chicken feed.

Effects on Human Health

Most of the information available on the effects of PCBs comes from studies in animals and occupationally exposed workers. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under the World Health Organization and the US Department of Health and Human Services, PCBs belong to the category of probable human carcinogen. Investigations have traditionally been aimed at determining the carcinogenicity of PCBs; however, exposure to them is known to cause a wide spectrum of health problems. Acute exposures to high levels of PCBs have been associated with problems of itching and pigmentation of the skin, eye irritation, alterations in liver function and the immune system, irritation of the respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, depression, loss memory, fatigue and powerlessness (UNEP, 1999). Chronic effects at low doses of PCBs include damage to the liver, impaired reproduction and development (UNEP, 1999).

In industrialized countries, studies are usually carried out to determine the levels of PCBs in the population, and one of the variables that is analyzed is their concentration in breast milk. This is because the high fat content of milk leads to the storage of PCBs there, and therefore, their transfer to the child during lactation. Unfortunately in Argentina, this type of study has not been done so, despite the fact that there are PCBs in the environment, the level of exposure of the population has not been analyzed.

Uses of PCBs

PCBs have been used for decades mainly as dielectric fluids in transformers and capacitors, in hydraulic machines, and as solvents for some inks. Other uses of PCBs include the formulation of lubricating oils; as plasticizers in paints, adhesives and sealants; as flame retardants and in plastics (UNEP, 1999). However, in general, the use in transformers and capacitors has represented the main use of these compounds. It is estimated that until 1989 around 1.5 million tonnes of PCBs had been produced (UNEP, 1998) and that between 30 and 70% of them continue to be used or are in the environment (Lester, 1999). However, it is not possible to determine with the naked eye if a transformer contains PCBs, so this type of information requires sampling and laboratory analysis.

Situation of PCBs in Argentina

Given the evidence of the toxicity and persistence in the environment of these pollutants, the industrialized countries banned their production and placed restrictions on their use. In Argentina, it was not until 2001 that the national government issued regulations to set a deadline for the use of these fluids. According to joint Resolution 437/01 of the Ministry of Health and 209/01 of the Ministry of Labor, the production, import and commercialization of PCBs and products and / or equipment that contain them is prohibited (MSAL and MTEFRH 2001). According to said standard,? The Polychlorinated Biphenyls contained in equipment that (in perfect state of conservation and maintenance as of the effective date of this Resolution) are in use should be gradually replaced during their useful life, not exceeding a period maximum committed until 2010?
As there are no hazardous waste operators in the country authorized to treat these wastes, some companies have exported them. However, different sectors agree that they continue to be used, although no one knows for sure where they are and what the number of transformers that still contain PCBs is. These are commonly used when flame resistant transformers are required, such as inside buildings or at nuclear plants (UNEP, 1999). There are transformers along power lines to lower the voltage in distribution systems and provide electricity to homes. Most of the transformers are under the control of the electricity producing or distributing companies, but there are industries that generate electricity privately and have their own transformers, for example steel mills, railway networks, military bases, etc. (UNEP, 1999).

Although transformers are supposed to be closed systems where PCBs should not come into contact with the outside, the reality is very different. Emissions of PCBs to the environment occur during equipment repairs as well as the frequent spills and explosions that involve them. Argentina and more than 90 countries signed in Stockholm, on May 23, 2001, an international agreement in which they undertake to eliminate PCBs along with a list of only 12 compounds that have been prioritized for elimination due to their toxicity and persistence. .


In Argentina there is a still unknown quantity of PCBs still being used and at risk of being released into the environment, placing new threats on the population. It is therefore essential that while the deadlines of the current resolutions and international commitments to eliminate PCBs are met, the companies that use them act responsibly and not only handle them with the highest safety standards but also replace them immediately. There is significant evidence of its environmental importance in terms of pollution in our country, so there is no time to lose. The risk of keeping PCB transformers in use should be avoided. The inventory of current PCBs stocks must be absolutely public and an evaluation of the degree of exposure of the general population must also be carried out through programs of dosages of PCBs in tissues and in fatty foods.


(ATSDR, 1995) - Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - "Toxicological Profile for Polychlorinated Biphenyls", USA, 1995.
(Borrell, 1994) - Asunción Borrell et al, "Contamination by DDT and PCBs in Pontoporia Blainvillei de Aguas Argentinas. Variation with Age and Sex", Anais do 2º Encontro on Coordination of Management and Research of Franciscana, Brazil, 1994.
(CARU, 1998) - Administrative Commission of the Uruguay River, "Impact of Coastal Zones, Module: Salto - Concordia", Subcommittee on Pollution, 1998.
(Colombo, 1990) - Juan Carlos Colombo et al, "Distribution of Chlorinated Pesticides and Individual Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Abiotic Compartments of the Rio de la Plata, Argentina", Environ. Sci. Technol., Vol. 24, No. 4, 1990.
(Colombo, 1997) - Juan Carlos Colombo et al, "Long Term Accumulation of Individual PCBs, Dioxins, Furans, and Trace Metals in Asiatic Clams from the Río de la Plata Estuary, Argentina", Environ. Technol., Vol. 31, No. 12, 1997.
(Colombo, 2000) - Juan Carlos Colombo et al, "Detritivorous fish contamination in the Río de la Plata Estuary: a critical pathway in the cycle of anthropogenic compounds ?, Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci., 57: 1139- 1150, June 2000.
(Lanfranchi, 1998) - Ana Lanfranchi et al, "Distribution of Organochlorine Compounds in Tissues of Croaker (Micropogonias furnieri) from Samborombón Bay, Argentina", Environmental Sciences, 6, 1 (1998) 055-067.
(Lester, 1999) - Stephen Lester, "An update of the toxicity of PCBs", Center for Health, Environment and Justice,, USA, May 1999.
(MSAL and MTEFRH 2001)? Resolution 437/01 of the Ministry of Health and 209/01 of the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Human Resources Training.
(PBA, 2000) - Government of the Province of Buenos Aires, Resolution 142/00, Undersecretary of Fishing Activities, Ministry of Production of the Province of Buenos Aires, April 2000.
(UNEP, 1998) - United Nations Environment Program, "Inventory of Worldwide PCB Destruction Capacity", December 1998.
(UNEP, 1999) - United Nations Environment Program, "Guidelines for the Identification of PCBs and Materials Containing PCBs", August 1999.
(SIHN, 1997) - Servicio de Hidrografía Naval - Hidrovía S.A., "Second Monitoring of Environmental Impact, 3rd Progress Report", 1997.


Resolution 437/01 of the Ministry of Health and 209/01 of the Ministry of Labor.

HAVING SEEN FILE No. 2002 -10.398-00-4 of the Registry of this Ministry, and CONSIDERING

That there is conclusive scientific evidence of the harmful effects for humans produced by Polychlorinated Biphenyls;

That the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) includes Polychlorinated Biphenyls in group 2-A, among the compounds recognized as probable carcinogens for human beings;

That the United Nations Environment Program includes Polychlorinated Biphenyls among Persistent Organic Compounds (POPs) for their biopersistence and toxicity to humans and ecosystems;

That the United Nations International Chemical Safety Program (IPCS) in its Environmental Health Criteria reports on toxic effects for living organisms and the environment;

That the Argentine Republic is a ratifying member country of Convention 139 on Occupational Cancer of the International Labor Organization;

That by provision No. 1/95 of the former NATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY DIRECTORATE OF WORK of the former MINISTRY OF LABOR AND SOCIAL SECURITY, Polychlorinated Biphenyls are part of the list of carcinogenic substances to which exposure at work will be prohibited or subject to control and authorization by the competent authority, as the case may be;

That by provision No. 2/95 of the former NATIONAL HYGIENE AND WORK SAFETY DIRECTORATE of the former MINISTRY OF LABOR AND SOCIAL SECURITY, companies that use Polychlorinated Biphenyls must register in order to know the product's stock and its location, in order to exercise control over them;

That to date there are alternative replacement products considered safer, in use in countries of the European Community;

That in the National Workshop for the Identification of Priorities in the Sustainable Management of Chemical Substances, organized by the Ministry of Health in September 1997, Polychlorinated Biphenyls were considered as a priority problem for the country;

That it is a non-delegable function of the State to guarantee workers and the general population that the substances used in the production of goods and services do not compromise their health and safety.

That Decree No. 20 of December 13, 1999 establishes that the Ministry of Health is responsible for adopting the appropriate measures to protect the health of the population from the detection of any risk factor for it.

That the Permanent Legal Services of the Ministry of Health and Labor, Employment and Human Resources Training have taken the intervention of their competence.

That this measure is issued in accordance with or provided by the "Law of Ministries -T.O. 1991", modified by Law 25.233.


Art. 1.- The production, importation and commercialization of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and products and / or equipment containing them shall be prohibited throughout the country.

Art. 2.- The Polychlorinated Biphenyls contained in equipment that (in perfect state of conservation and maintenance at the date of promulgation of this Resolution) are in use, must be gradually replaced while their useful life lasts, not exceeding a period maximum committed until 2010.

Art. 3.- Meanwhile, the conformity of the use of equipment without replacement will be subject to authorization granted by the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Human Resources Training in accordance with current regulations, (Provisions 1 and 2/95 of the DIRECTORATE NATIONAL OF HYGIENE AND WORK SAFETY of the former MINISTRY OF LABOR AND SOCIAL SECURITY) in order to ensure special exposure conditions that limit the risk to the exposed population as much as possible, ensuring a controlled discontinuity of the use of Polychlorinated Biphenyls until their total elimination, maintaining its updated inventory and the exposed population monitored during the replacement period.

Art.4º.- The decontamination of equipment, and the elimination of Polychlorinated Biphenyls or devices that contain them, must be treated as hazardous waste and will be included in the considerations of National Law 24,051 and other concordant regulations at the provincial and municipal level.


Art, 6.- This Resolution will come into effect 30 days after its publication in the Official Gazette.

Art. 7.- Communicate, publish it, give it to the National Directorate of Official Registry, and file it.

RESOLUTION MS Nº: 437/2001
Hector Lombardo
Patricia bullrich
* Veronica Odriozola,
Greenpeace Argentina

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