WWF has warned of a French Chernobyl resulting from serious contamination of the Rhone river from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – highly toxic compounds banned in France in 1987 and formerly used as cooling and insulating fluids for industrial transformers, notably those used by EDF, the former national electricity monopoly.
Officials have banned the sale of fish from the Rhone along its 300-km length from Lyons to the Camargue after fish were found to contain levels of PCBs up to 40 times the safe limit defined by the WHO. Surprisingly, leisure fishermen are still allowed to catch and release on the Rhone. If consumed over long periods of time, these PCBs can lead to cancers or fertility problems.
WWF has urged that a study be conducted urgently on the scope of the contamination. For instance, what is the impact on the fauna and the food chain. How far does the damage extend – has there been an impact on the Mediterranean? Another major concern is the task of decontaminating the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of polluted river sediment. PCBs are classified as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they resist environmental degradation. This means they can bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue, biomagnify in food chains and have a significant impact on human health and the environment.
WWF, in a dispatch on its website, insists that the taxpayer should not have to bear the burden of the potentially exorbitant cost of decontaminating the river sediment. The government, for its part, has not given any official explanation on the original cause of the contamination.