Diving is full of acronyms and abbreviations – agencies such as NAUI, PADI, TDI, IANTD; those used in dive planning such as RNT, TNT, RDT, those used for equipment modes such as SSA, OC, CCR, SCR, and it goes on and on and on.
Some recent work leads me to discuss yet another abbreviation that those making their home beneath the waves should be concerned with – PCBs.
PCBs, or ‘polychlorinated biphenyl’, are a group of contaminants that are unavoidable in industrial inshore waterways. PCBs were used as coolants and insulating fluids for transformers and capacitors, such as those used in old fluorescent lights. PCBs were also a common component of plasticizers in paints and cements, stabilizing additives in flexible PVC coatings of electrical wiring and electronic components, pesticide extenders, cutting oils, hydraulic fluids, and sealants, paints, water-proofing compounds, casting agents, vacuum pump fluids, and numerous other industrial process components.
With industrial America lining these inshore waterways, it is no surprise that PCBs are a serious environmental contaminant. Numerous projects have been and are underway to clean up the mess so to speak, but of course the irreparable damage cannot be quantified to its fullest extent.
I’ve spent some time on a local project recently where we have been advised ‘not to stir up the bottom’. How exactly you do this when doing underwater construction I just don’t know. However, it goes without saying that we make a conscious effort to reduce direct skin exposure. Using compressed gas and a helmet, ingestion and inhalation are not concerns. The issue is skin contact. High concentrations of PCBs can cause rashes and other skin irritations, and of greater concern is the chemicals entering the bloodstream through any cuts or open sores. PCBs can have effects from reproductive problems to causing cancers.
While we take the exposure seriously, it is somewhat ignorant to think that one spot is any more or less contaminated than the next. yes, there are hot spots. But the extent of contamination, sediments being moved over the numerous decades of the industrial revolution, and the constant stirring up from vessel traffic, weather (tides/waves), etc leads me to believe that – most unfortunately – we’re always mucking around in a contaminated mess.
Our inshore waterways are more polluted than the masses can see visibly, and the nasties that we can’t see are worse than imaginable. What can you do? Think twice before you throw anything down the drain, put batteries in the trash, and improperly dispose of any household or shop chemicals…that’s a start anyway – seek a higher environmental consciousness.
For the rest of us whose doorstep is saturated with pollutants – tread lightly amidst the mess, and find that special appreciation when the turbidity clears. Maybe one day we can delete PCB from our long list of lingo.