Fears that many major rivers in France are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been confirmed in a report published in Le Parisien today. According to studies commissioned by the Environment Ministry, the Seine, the Rhine, the Moselle and several rivers in the north of France are all seriously polluted by PCBs, highly toxic compounds which were banned in France in 1987 and formerly used as cooling and insulating fluids for industrial transformers, notably by EDF, the former national electricity monopoly. Until now, only contamination of the Rhone has been officially confirmed. 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.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the junior minister for the environment, will outline the extent of the contamination at a steering committee in Lyons today, as well as a series of clean-up measures. Testing to determine the level of the carcinogen in the river sediment were carried out this summer in France. Only the west of the country and the Gironde river appear to have been spared contamination. Out of 852 tests, 45 percent revealed worrying levels of PCBs. “These are the consequences of 150 years of industrial history in France,” said the Environment Ministry. WWF warned of a French Chernobyl in the making earlier this year and has called on the government to extend its enquiry into the true extent of the contamination (has the Mediterranean been affected?) and urged it to determine responsibility for the source of the pollution. Here’s a link to the videos they showed at a press conference on 19 September.
PCBs are one of the so-called “dirty dozen” of Persisent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which are considered among the most dangerous known to man. The Stockholm Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from POPs, decribes them as “chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms and are toxic to humans and wildlife. POPs circulate globally and can cause damage wherever they travel.” Some of the others include DDT, dioxins and furans.