The discovery of PCBs in the environment
Environmental chemists struggle every day to discover new chemicals and unravel their fate in the environment and in humans by developing new methodologies and analytical techniques. Using state-of-the-art instrumentation we can today identify and quantify thousands of chemicals in complex samples at very low levels. In 1964, a young Danish scientist was hired at the Department of Analytical Chemistry, Stockholm University, Sweden to analyse levels of the pesticide DDT in the Swedish population. In his samples he found not only DDT and its degradation products but also a number of unknown peaks, a great motivator for any analytical chemist. With skills, ambitions, curiosity, and lots of hard work in combination with the development of mass spectrometry Sören Jensen discovered in 1966 polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment. Jensen found PCBs in his samples interfering with his DDT analysis and also in hair from his children and wife and realised their widespread use, persistence and transfer from mother to child over breast milk. Within ten years of his discovery PCBs were regulated and banned in a large part of the world but these compounds are still an issue of concern. This discovery was later followed by brominated flame retardants detected in fish downstream textile industries in Sweden, and the widespread environmental contamination of perfluorinated compounds and various pharmaceuticals. Chemicals being banned are replaced by industry developing substances of similar properties that are chased by smart environmental chemists – 50 years ago, today, and tomorrow.
Department of Chemistry
Umeå University, Sweden