Contamination of

Polychlorinated Biphenyls

in the

 Fox River

Northeastern Wisconsin

Largest Toxic Clean Up in North America

Research by:

Valeri Andrews, Karen Bartosh, Nicole Gunderson, Katelin Holm, Katie Larson, Tina Spielmann & Elizabeth Wiedell

University of Wisconsin -  Eau Claire

Introduction to Environmental and Public Health - ENPH 210

Fall 2003


History and Use of PCBs                    Environmental Effects

Human Health Effects and Prevention

Clean Up Plan                                          Economic Damage

 Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

n Economic Damage

Polychlorinated Biphenyls also known as PCBs are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals with the same basic chemical structure and physical properties, ranging from oily liquids to waxy solids.

There are 209 different kinds of PCBs and they only differ by where the chlorine is placed and how many molecules there are. Each shape acts differently while coplanar PCBs tend to be more hazardous than non-coplanar. Coplanar means lying in the same plane as opposed to one ring lying parallel to the floor and one perpendicular.

PCBs have a high boiling point, do not break down easily in water, they resist wear and tear, have a non-flammable chemical stability and exhibit electrical insulation properties.

Prior to 1977, 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications. Some examples are in heat transfer, hydraulic equipment, plastics, rubber products, dyes and carbonless copy paper.

Carbonless copy paper is used to make countless copies. The pressure of the pen ruptures micro capsules that hold a dye precursor.  A chemical reaction takes place between the dye precursor in the top page and an acid source in the bottom page.




--- NCR Corporation and Appleton Paper Company began dumping PCBs into the Fox River, as a by-product of their joint production of PCB-coated carbonless copy paper.  Shortly thereafter, five other paper companies started recycling the PCB-contaminated trimmings and wastepaper originating from Appleton Paper Company, and they also began dumping PCBs into the Fox River with their wastewater.


--- Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources initiated studies on the Fox River to determine the source of PCB contamination.


--- Fearing lawsuits, Monsanto (the producer of the PCBs) began requiring its customers (like Appleton Papers) to sign waivers relieving Monsanto of financial liability for improper uses of the chemical, thus putting buyers on notice of possible dangers.


--- Appleton Paper Company and NCR Corporation phased out PCB use...However, wastepaper recyclers continued to process PCB contaminated waste papers for several decades afterward, as offices and homes gradually disposed of old files and papers


--- U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a tolerance level of 5.0 parts per million (ppm) in commercially caught fish.


--- DNR released a major report on PCB contamination on the Fox River.  Fish consumption advisories were issued for the first time, warning anglers to not eat certain fish. 


--- The DNR and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service met to discuss legal actions to enforce cleanup of the Fox River.


--- The DNR held several meetings with paper industry representatives.   DNR staff expressed a reluctance to endanger their "good working relationship" with the paper industry. 


--- The Governor issued press releases stating that the mills were "voluntarily donating $10 million to clean-up the Fox River." 


--- In the summer, the state and federal governments, and tribal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to negotiate a settlement with the polluters. 


--- In January, the Intergovernmental Partners announced a partial Record of Decision for the upstream half of the Fox River (from Little Lake Butte des Morts to Little Rapids), and held one public informational meeting in Appleton to answer public questions.  The agencies ignored all the comments provided by Clean Water Action Council's technical advisors, and proposed roughly the same project proposed the year before.  The cleanup will not protect public health or wildlife.


--- On the same night as the Appleton meeting, the Intergovernmental Partners announced a new surprise partial $4 million settlement from Georgia-Pacific Corporation, to be used for detailed sediment characterization and remedial design for the downstream half of the Fox River.


 In the Fox River and Green Bay area, injuries to wildlife (due to PCBs) are well documented.  They include cancer in walleye, deformities in terns, and fatalities to un-hatched bald eagles, Forsters terns, common terns, and double-crested cormorants.  These injuries have resulted in consumption advisories for every species of sport fish, and waterfowl consumption advisories for mallard ducks.  

(David Allen, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)


Environmental Effects


The Fox River and bay bottom sediments are badly contaminated with thousands of pounds of the toxic chemical better known as PCBs.  These chemicals have flowed downstream and spread throughout the Green Bay area threatening both wildlife and public health.  In fact, up to 70% of all waterborne PCB's in Lake Michigan come from the Fox River.  Scientists believe that several kinds of Great Lake fish may have gone extinct in the 1950s due to reproductive failure caused by chlorinated compounds such as PCBs. 

PCB inflicted diseases caused in birds include:  



       Behavioral Abnormalities

        Impaired Mating Behavior

       Cancer and Genetic Mutations

        Chromosome Alteration

       Physiological Malfunction

        Eggshell thinning

        Altered endocrine status

        Reduced Reproduction

       Physical deformities

        Small beak and eyes

        Skeletal Deformities


Human Health Effects


PCBs are found throughout the Fox River area in the air, soil, water, and wildlife.  PCBs can be contacted by humans by eating the animals from the bay area and breathing the contaminated air.  It can also be absorbed through the skin by swimming in the polluted water or handing the polluted soil.

 Some PCBs have properties like dioxin, some act like hormones, and other are nerve poisons.  PCBs alter major systems in the body (immune, hormone, nervous, and enzyme systems); therefore, they affect a wide variety of bodily organs and functions.  The Federal Government banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1979 because of concerns about potential risks to human health and environment.

 The effects of PCBs are split into 2 main categories: cancer related risks and non cancer related risks.

 Cancer Related Risks

Several government and health agencies consider PCBs a probable carcinogen for humans and a known carcinogen for animals (based on numerous animal studies).  All PCB mixtures cause cancer in animals.  Government agencies generally require larger and more repeated studies before declaring a substance a know carcinogen in humans

 The risks associated with consumption of fish containing high levels of PCBs are more than 1,000 times greater than the standard 1-in-a-million cancer risk level used by Wisconsin to regulate hazardous waste sites.


Types of cancer caused by PCBs:

         Liver and Gall Bladder and Biliary Cancer

         Tract Cancer

         Skin Cancer

         Brain Cancer

         Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma

         Pancreatic Cancer

         Lung Cancer

         Kidney Cancer

         Prostate Cancer

         Breast Cancer 


Non-Cancer Related Risks

         Health problems in children

         Immune system damage

         Thyroid Function

         Parkinsons Disease

         Depression and other emotional disorders

         Peripheral Neuropathy

         Spinal Degeneration and Arthritis

         Heart Disease


         Skin Absorption and damage

         Liver Damage


         Reproductive and sexual imparities

         Hearing Damage

         Loss of sense of smell


There are several risks strictly associated with children and unborn fetuses.  These in clued:

         Neurological Damage

         Immune System Damage

         Low Birth Weight

         Shorter Gestation Period

         Smaller Heads at Birth

         Impaired of Slowed Growth




How we can prevent getting PCB's

PCBs are found throughout the Fox River area in the air, soil, water, and wildlife.  PCBs can be contacted by humans through: eating animals from the bay area, breathing contaminated air, and skin absorption by swimming in polluted water and handling polluted soil.  To prevent PCB absorption, humans must be careful of where the fish they are eating are coming from, and pay attention to where they are swimming, breathing, and handling soil.


Dont Eat the Animals


"Those who eat fish from lower Green Bay and below the DePere Dan face a cancer risk due to PCBs equal to smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day."

Dr. Jeffery Foran, toxicologist

Fish, ducks, and other animals eat smaller fish and insects with high levels of PCBs.  Even small levels of PCBs in water concentrate to high levels in fish and other mammals.  This building or gathering of PCBs through the food chain causes the toxic chemicals to build up to dangerous levels in larger fish and mammals.  Humans in turn eat the fish and waterfowl from the area and come in direct contact with PCBs.


                        Air Pollution

PCB's rise off the surface of the Fox River and Green Bay and contaminate the air.
The air blows downwind, polluting other areas such as Canada and the Great Lakes.

                            Skin Absorption

Medical studies have been carried out and it has been proven that PCBs can be rapidly and excessively absorbed through the skin.  This raises concerns for people swimming in the Fox River and Green Bay area and for the people handling PCB contaminated sediments or topsoil from the area.



  Clean Up Plan

There are three possible treatments that can be used in cleaning up the PCB contamination in the Fox River.  The three options are 1) Dredging 2) Capping and 3) Natural Recovery.


1) Dredging

Dredging actually removes all of the  contamination that resides in an environment.  It utilized big machinery that scrape up all of the hazardous sedimentation and it is permanently removed.  It is a very positive option, however, there is much deliberation where to store the hazardous material after it is removed.  


2) Capping

This technique covers the hazardous sediment with one foot of sand and gravel.  It is much less expensive than dredging, but it leaves many areas "unsealed."  This treatment option is only temporary and will not suit as a long-term fix.

3) Natural Recovery

As it's name implies, it leaves the contamination in place and relies on natural chemical and biological processes to degrade the hazardous material.  This technique does not cost a penny, however it is a very inefficient clean up method.    



It is evident that PCBs cannot be disposed of in nature and they could persist in their current environment for centuries.  Natural recovery does rely on sun degradation, however, the sunlight transforms PCBs only to other forms.  This option still leaves  public health threatened and the possibility of the contamination spreading over a larger area.


Current Proposed Plan Outlined

  • Doyle to give $4 million
  • 7 paper companies to split cost

    Will clean up 7 mile segment of Fox River

    Upstream Cleaned First

    Downstream (more contaminated ) Cleaned Second

    First Phase

    26 miles

    $76 million

    7 million cubic yards to be dredged

    Then treated and sent to landfill

    Rest of river to rely on natural recovery

    Second Phase

    13 miles

    Dredge 6.4 million cubic yards

    Equivalent to 61,000 pounds of PCBs

    Pipe to new landfill in Holland, WI


    Finally found decision after 30 years of deliberation

    Actually removing some PCBs from Fox River


    Proposed cleanup standard is 1ppm

                             - This is not an adequate level for the protection of public health

    Leaves majority of PCBs in water

    Next 20 years the fish will remain contaminated

    100 years from now, natural recovery will finally have cleaned the river

    Holland will be newly contaminated with PCBs in air

    Plan still open for changes



    Economic Damage


    A study done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the 7 paper companies owe the public in Northeast Wisconsin and Upper Michigan between $177 and $333 million in compensation and restoration costs. This focuses mainly on financial loss due to recreation and currently active fishers. This plan doesnt take into account other important economic damages. 

    There are economic damages NOT taken into account:

  • Discourages anglers
  • Dont fish in the area due to PCB contamination

    Fish are too contaminated with PCBs to sell

    Strict consumption advisories due to PCBs

    Must purchase store bought fish and poultry

    High matinance cost due to disposal rules from sediments dredged from shipping channels and boat slips

    Expensive pipelines and dwindling groundwater

    Beaches closed because of contamination

    Bird watching and other wildlife enjoyment activities have been harmed

    As population increases, so do damages

    Homes, businesses and public properties devalued

    The service is not allowed to by law to include losses due to human health. Private civil action may be required to receive compensation.




    We would like to thank the following for supplying this information and would like to encourage you to visit the following sites:

    EPA  Fox River Watch  Earth Crash Earth Spirit
    Earth Crash Earth Spirit  Washington State Environmental Health Department
    OSU  Conneticut State Health Department  Journal of Chemical Education