Pocahontas, PCBs and Reputation

By Art Malm, P.E., FOFR Director

Recently I was at Disney World with my granddaughters who told Pocahontas how much they loved her song “Just Around the River Bend”. “Do you live near a river pocahontas and grandkids bend?” Pocahontas asked. “No, we live in Elgin” Kayla replied. “Oh” said the Princess, “You live near the Fox River.” Reputation can travel a long way.

In 1835 James Gifford, Elgin’s founding father wrote to his wife:

The Fox is the finest stream I ever saw, it has uniformly in this State a limestone bottom, its current uniform and gentle, its waters pure, and is abundantly supplied with fine Fish”. Pure water and abundant fine fish hasn’t been the reputation of our Fox for a long time.

The heavy pollution of our river from the late 1800’s to the 1970’s is thankfully, and hopefully, forever in the past. But our Fox’s reputation as a polluted river remains. Just last year the Illinois Department of Public Health restated its advisory about PCB contamination in Fox River fish.

A Persistent and Popular Toxin

PCB’s were once used widely in electrical equipment because they are great electrical insulators and not susceptible to fire. In the late 1970s these chemicals were found to cause birth defects and cancer in laboratory animals. So the US EPA prohibited PCB production and began the phase out of its use.

Last month this column talked about the levels of mercury in the Fox River’s smallmouth bass now being comparable to the mercury levels in the cod we have at our Friday night fish fries or the best “light” tuna found on our grocery shelves. Analyzing that same fish tissue data (obtained by filing “FOIA requests) from the Illinois EPA for PCB’s provided even better news! PCB levels in our Fox’s fish have fallen greatly since IEPA’s testing began in 1974.

channel catfish
            Channel Catfish

In 1974 PCB contamination levels of Fox fish filet samples were very close the 2 ppm (part-per-million)  US FDA advisory level for adults. The PCB contamination level found was nearly ten times higher than the more protective 0.2 ppm advisory for infant and junior foods. No one wants their kids eating contaminated fish.

Fast forward to 2007 and, as shown on the accompanying chart, the average PCB levels for all fish sampled had dropped to below the US FDA prescribed levels for even infant and junior foods.

Because of State funding and related problems, the fish tissue samples taken in 2012 have still not been analyzed for PCB’s! Nor have the samples taken in 2017. Given the Federal prohibition on PCB manufacturing in 1979, and the steady drop in PCB levels in samples analyzed since that time, it can reasonably be expected PCB levels today are even lower than found in 2007.

Our Cats (and Carp) are Cleaner!

The Fox River Study Group recently presented this analysis to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The Study Group is asking the Illinois Dept. of Public Health to reconsider its Fox River Fish PCB advisory pending confirmation by completion of the laboratory work on fish taken in 2012 and 2017. This action won’t happen overnight but it certainly appears an achievable goal for 2019.

With the lifting of our Fox’s PCB advisories and the very good water quality news to be released by the Illinois State Water Survey early in 2019, the reputation of our Fox is ready to take a significant step up as a clean, vital and valuable public resource. With obsolete dam removal and years of continued vigilance, our grandchildren may see our Fox’s reputation return to what it was in the times of Pocahontas and James Gifford.