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PCB Contamination and the South Fremantle Power Station

​​Whilst researching relevant and somewhat important documents on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - "highly carcinogenic chemical compounds, formerly used in industrial and consumer products, whose production was banned by United States federal law in 1978" - I was given the strong impression that the level of seriousness in relation to its contamination at the South Fremantle Power Station is far from realised. At least publicly.

  • To what extent of workers, who were once employed at the South Fremantle power station, have since developed cancer or previously had?

  • Have many have since passed away as a result of losing their battles with cancer?

  • Does the true levels of PCB contamination at the power station match with what has been publicly disclosed, or at least, publicly available?

  • Did contamination levels from PCB (or from any other contaminant) contribute to why previous redevelopment plans never went ahead?

  • Or why the apparent proposed/approved demolition in 1997 was dismissed?

  • Could demolition of the power station cause a serious predicament with potential contamination issues within the local environment as well as with treatment and disposal methods?

  • Or why SECWA/Synergy haven't sold the power station any earlier?

  • Or why previously interested parties have bailed on committing to a purchase

PCB oils are found in outdated power generation and transmission equipment

PCBs are often found in outdated power generation and transmission equipment,

such as the transformer seen here

What are PCBs?


They are organic pale-yellow chlorine compounds with a thick and sticky liquid texture that repels water but dissolves easily in most organic solvents like fats and oils.

Being chemically stable, it doesn't evaporate easily, has very high thermal conductivity (transfers heat quickly) and high flash points of 170-380°C (reaching high temperatures without a risk of igniting).

They do not break down or degrade easily and mixtures don't change with acids, bases, oxidation, hydrolysis (the chemical breakdown of a compound due to a reaction with water) and temperature change. 

PCBs easily penetrate skin, PVC and latex.

Uses for PCBs


They are used in:

  • coolants,

  • insulation fluids for transformers (a passive component that transfers electrical energy from one electrical circuit to another) and capacitors (a device that stores electrical energy in an electrical field)

  • ballasts

  • x-ray machines

  • hydraulic fluids

  • lubricating and cutting oils

  • carbonless copy paper

  • plasticizers in paints, coal tars and cements

  • stabilizing additives in PVC coatings for electrical cables and electronic components

  • pesticide extenders (making it stick to what it's sprayed on)

  • reactive flame retardants

  • sealants for caulking, adhesives and wood floor finishes

  • de-dusting agents

  • waterproofing compounds

  • casting agents,

  • pigments in inks for paper or plastic products



"The effects on human health depend on the concentration of PCBs and the type and extent of exposure." Whilst an intake of PCBs can result from ingesting (particularly from food), inhalation and skin exposure to contaminated soil or dust, due to its tendency to persist in the environment with its ability to bind with sediments and soils for very long periods of time, "in open air environments the potential for vapour inhalation is considered limited" (SA Health).

Soil contamination can lead to contamination of groundwater, which can be revealed with suitable groundwater sampling and testing.

SA Health list the effects on human health as depending on:

  • the extent a person has been exposed to, particularly with the corresponding length of time

  • the dose or concentration of that exposure

  • the toxicity of the exposed PCB

  • method of exposure: inhalation, ingestion or penetrating the skin

  • any pre-existing illnesses and

  • the age of the person at risk


Signs and symptoms


The most common health effect experienced by a person with large exposures to PCB contamination tends to skin conditions, including acne and rashes. "In workers exposed to high levels of PCBs, tests have indicated liver damage."

  • Damage or abnormal changes to the tissue in your body

  • Liver damage

  • Gastro-intestinal discomfort

  • Cancer

  • Irregular menstrual changes

  • Impaired reproduction (although they are not know to cause birth defects)

  • Reduced immunity

  • Increased thyroid disorder

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Depression

  • Nose and lung irritation

  • Coughs

  • Unusual skin sores

  • Poor cognitive development, compromised immune system and motor control problems in children whose mother was exposed to PCB before or during pregnancy

  • An interference with the hormones in the body

  • Serious development problems including sexual, skeletal and mental development issues

  • Decreases in short-term memory

  • Behavioural alterations

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