Column: Toxic chemicals found in many places

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Arsenic is a toxic metal-like element occurring naturally in the environment. In some areas of Minnesota, the arsenic levels in public drinking water supply wells are higher than what’s considered safe for human health. Effects of exposure to high arsenic levels include increased risk of bladder and skin cancer, as well as problems associated with the circulatory and nervous systems. A good Web page to access more information about this can be found at

Hector, Minn. had unusually high levels of arsenic in the ground water. In the late 1970s the department of health found levels of 86 to 100 parts per billion. New wells improved the situation to only 24 to 42 parts per billion. At a cost of $900,000 to build a water treatment plant, they are now operating at acceptable levels.

During the 1930s, plagues of grasshoppers destroyed farm fields across a broad swath of the state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided pure arsenic to farmers, who mixed it with sawdust to make poisonous bait to protect their crops. When the crisis ended, officials buried the arsenic and after time it leaked in to the groundwater. There are still pesticides being brought into our Household Hazardous Waste program each week with arsenic in them. Look in your garage or basement. You may have some, and it’s time to get rid of it. In the past couple of years we have collected many arsenic-containing products, Many of these old containers are in poor condition and should not be used for any purpose.

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High levels of inorganic arsenic can result in death. Lower levels of arsenic can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet. Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are also commonly found in our homes and at work. Health effects in people exposed to PCBs are skin conditions, rashes, liver damage, changes in the immune system, behavioral alterations and impaired reproduction. PCBs have no known smell or taste, are colorless to light yellow and can exist as a vapor in the air.

Used as coolants, lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment many years ago, PCBs have been systematically replaced in recent years as equipment and tools are upgraded. Herein lies the problem to our health. There still exist many units that contain PCBs in such places as ballasts, old wood preservers, electric motors (especially in old appliances), or oils used as a coolant in transformers. If these units are collected for scrap value we need to be concerned with the oil possibly contaminated with PCBs.

There have been many toxic pollutants in our environment in recent years and scientists are just now learning how difficult they are to remove. Toxic pollutants are straying from their normal habitats by catching rides on air or water-borne carriers such as garbage and plastic. Years ago, toxins did not get far before the carrier disintegrated. Recently, scientists have found DDT and other toxic chemicals in polar bears at the north pole and tested winds that can carry airborne contamination from China and Russia to Canada and the U.S. Even though some toxic chemicals have not been used for many years, many have not degraded and are more persistent than originally thought. Read the label before you decide to use a chemical. More may not be better.

Randy Tuchtenhagen is Freeborn County’s solid waste officer.