Michelle Nguyen – Fellow

The Indestructible Carcinogen

Look, in the water, it’s a fish, it’s a bird, it’s a dead fish and a dead bird!

What can withstand any type of destruction and cause cancer?  That’s right, polychlorinated biphenyls aka PCBs.

PCBs would make really good superheroes… except for the fact that they cause cancer in animals and humans.  They can’t catch on fire and are chemically indestructible, which basically means they’re immortal.

However, this is a problem.  With great power comes great responsibility.

PCBs were used in the production of carbonless copy paper during the 1950s and then dumped into rivers and lakes such as the Hudson River and Lake Michigan.  When fish are exposed to PCBs, they grow tumors.  When birds eat the fish, they grow tumors.  When humans eat the fish and birds, they develop cancer.

Currently, kryptonite—I mean teeny tiny palladium/copper oxide particles are being tested for PCB degradation abilities using green chemistry techniques, such as using sun irradiation to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas in order to degrade PCBs into their less dangerous friends, biphenyls.  Biphenyls are compounds that are non-toxic and non-reactive.  Up, up, and away!


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