The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Arrives

Here's how the term “PCB” achieved worldwide notoriety almost overnight.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created by Congress in 1970. Within just a few years, the EPA began to study reports of ill effects in humans who had come into skin contact with, or had inhaled fumes from Askarel fluids, and studied incidents of genetic disorders where Askarel had entered into the human food chain. Research studies showed that somewhere between 30% and 70% of the chemical composition of most Askarel was “polychlorinated biphenyl” and thus, the term “PCB” achieved worldwide notoriety almost overnight.

Modern liquid-filled secondary substation transformer. Courtesy: Schneider Electric, Inc.After widely publicized research studies and public hearings (and a few criminal prosecutions), the EPA issued a formal ban on production of PCB in 1979, and issued a long list of mostly confusing regulations to American companies about what to do with the millions of tons of Askarel that were already in active service in electrical equipment everywhere inside and outside their plants.

The formal ban of PCB hit American industry like a bombshell, and left thousands of companies struggling in search of acceptable alternatives. Some alternatives that soon emerged were silicone fluids, high molecular weight hydrocarbons (R-Temp, for one), and perchloroethylene, as retro-fill substitute fluids in existing equipment, as well as for use in new transformers.

A large new cottage industry immediately sprouted, with hundreds of companies specializing in the replacement, removal, and legal incineration of Askarel fluids.

Westinghouse had reasonably good success with producing new transformers that were filled with percloroethylene, under the trade name Wecosol. GE took a slightly different approach with an interesting transformer design trade-named VaporTran, using CFC-113 as the dielectric fluid. A clever and effective design, it used the principle of evaporative cooling for keeping the transformer windings cooled and insulated.

After a few years of study of these new replacement fluids, the EPA found major problems with almost all of them.

The EPA eventually found perchloroethylene to be an even more serious toxin than the PCB it replaced. Silicone fluid was found to have about zero biogradeability—you could cart it off to a landfill at end of life, and it would never go away. R-Temp was classified as a “hazmat hydrocarbon” —if it ever spilled or leaked inside your plant, you’d have to notify the EPA, fill out a lot of incident reports, and call in a hazmat cleanup team. GE’s CFC-113 was found to be a somewhat dangerous fluorocarbon that could damage the earth’s upper atmosphere ozone layer.

American industry in general had spent many tens of billions of dollars in trying to find effective solutions for replacing Askarel fluids, and now the industry was essentially being commanded to do it all over again, to remove and replace most of the more modern replacement fluids, all under the watchful eye of the EPA.

Canada also went through a similar national remediation process, a few years behind the U.S., but with less rigorous government regulation that actually caused much less consistent results than in the U.S.

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