Protecting Canadians through regulations

Submitted by Vic Shantora and Nadine Levin

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manmade chemicals imported into Canada since the 1930s. Due to their stability and electrical insulating properties, they were mostly used as insulating fluids in electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors. They were also in many other everyday uses such as fireproofing, paints, varnishes, adhesives, lacquers, transparent and moisture-proof paper, heat-transfer fluid, inks and even cookware.

In the 1970s, concerns grew about the risks that PCBs posed to the environment. Studies found that they are extremely harmful to the environment and living organisms. They are linked to cancer, reproductive failure and other health effects. PCBs are very persistent in the environment and build up in animal tissues. This causes bioaccumulation, meaning that the animals at the top of the food chain can experience the most harm.

Concerns about the impact of PCBs in Canada led to the development of the Chlorobiphenyls Regulations in 1977. These Regulations placed restrictions on manufacturing, processing, use and import of PCB equipment in Canada, but did not cover how to manage waste. There was no PCB destruction facility in Canada at that time, so PCB materials were stored in many facilities across the country. One of these warehouses in St-Basile-le-Grand, Quebec, caught on fire on August 23, 1988, and released more than just PCBs. Dioxins and furans, some of the most toxic chemicals known, were also released to the environment and posed a serious risk to the environment and human health.

That year, the development of the first Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA 1988) was underway. The late Peter Higgins was the Director General of the CEPA Office at that time. His team was addressing the issue of the safe handling, storage, and disposal of PCBs. After the St-Basile-le-Grand fire, the issue became more urgent. Peter recommended that the government issue an Interim Order on PCB waste storage.

The CEPA Office then oversaw the development of the Storage of PCB Material Regulations, which came into effect in 1992. This replaced the interim order and had new requirements to make sure that PCB material and wastes were stored safely. This required the proper labelling and handling of millions of pieces of equipment across the country (Figures 1 and 2). Ensuring compliance with these regulations has taken a strong commitment from multiple groups in ECCC over the decades; including Programs, Environmental Enforcement and Compliance Promotion.

The latest version of the PCB Regulations came into force in 2008 under the authority of the newer CEPA 1999. The most recent amendments came into force in 2015. These regulations help protect the health of Canadians and the environment by preventing the release of PCBs to the environment, and by accelerating the phasing out of these substances by 2025. To learn more, visit the PCBs in the environment Web page.

The Remembering Peter Higgins Group submitted information used in this story and wrote this tribute piece about Peter’s legacy at ECCC.

Electrical transformers sit on top of concrete slabs at an outdoor storage site.

Figure 1: Storage site of PCB-containing transformers. Photograph submitted by Shannon Kurbis.

Electrical equipment sits on top of pallets in an indoor storage facility.
Figure 2: Storage site of PCB-containing electrical equipment. Photograph submitted by Shannon Kurbis.
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