Your Favorite Yellow Sweatshirt Could Be Making You Sick

Researchers have detected a resurgence in high levels of PCB-11, a compound that was banned decades ago.

(Photo: John Morton/Flickr)

Feb 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Yellow: the color of sunshine, happiness, friendship…and, potentially, serious health risks.

Environmental scientists at Rutgers University have discovered that yellow printing inks and dyes in a number of paper products and clothing brands contain chemicals that have been banned in the U.S. for decades.

Sweatshirts, pajamas, lunch napkins, magazines, and printer ink were just a few of the products tested that contained PCB 11, a compound that is part of a class of toxic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls.

“When you touch these things, you are getting [PCB 11] on your hands,” Dr. Lisa Rodenburg, associate professor of environmental organic chemistry at Rutgers and lead author of the study, tells TakePart. “[The chemicals] can also get out of the pigment and find their way into water.”

The manufacturing of PCBs was banned in 1979 under the Toxic Substances Control Act because of concerns over the health impacts, which included cancer, endocrine disruption, and suppressed immune systems.

But recent studies have found that certain PCBs, such as PCB 11, continue to be released into the environment as a by-product of the production of pigments used in ink, dye, and paint.

Although little is known about the health risks of PCB 11 compared with other kinds of PCBs, Rodenburg says the concentration of PCB 11 in her testing is cause for concern.

She and a team of researchers from Rutgers analyzed 18 ink-treated paper products made in the U.S. and found that 15 contained PCB 11. What’s worse: All 28 paper products they tested from 26 foreign countries contained PCB 11.

And 100 percent of the 16 articles of clothing they tested had traces of PCB 11, including children’s clothing purchased from Walmart.

Rodenburg’s paper will likely be published later this year. Until then, the findings, which were first reported by Brien Bienkowski of Environmental Health News, are preliminary. But they will add to a growing body of literature that is slowly revealing how common PCB 11 exposure is.

Researchers at the University of Iowa reported that PCB 11 can vaporize into the atmosphere and that unsuspecting citizens can inhale it. Their yearlong study found that PCB 11 was ubiquitous in the air in Chicago.

Another study found that 60 percent of 85 women in urban and rural communities in Indiana and Iowa who were tested had traces of PCB 11 in their blood.

These findings are turning heads in the scientific community.

PCB 11 is “rapidly metabolized and excreted,” so that it is showing up in tests implies that people are “constantly exposed,” Rachel Marek, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iowa, told Environmental Health News. “If they are in the air and one breathes them in every day, there will be a continuous exposure to what I suspect are very toxic substances.”

Don’t expect the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come to the rescue anytime soon.

A loophole in the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows companies to produce PCBs as long as they are unintentional by-products of manufacturing. If products do contain PCBs, then they must undergo testing to ensure that the levels do not exceed federal limits.

Rodenburg says that because chemical companies are constantly coming out with new products, the EPA is forced to play catch-up.

Toxic chemicals get out into the environment, and then the EPA tests them,” she says. “It would make more sense if we tested them first and then decided whether they were safe to release into commerce to be used and sold."