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Study Finds Contaminated Air Around New Bedford Harbor

Sarah Mizes-Tan
A view of the New Bedford Harbor, which has been a superfund site since 1983.

A study by Boston University's School of Public Health has found evidence of air contaminated with Polychlorinated Biphenyls, also known as PCBs, in a .4 mile radius around New Bedford Harbor.

It also found that residents who lived within this .4 mile zone were at risk for having disrupted thyroid hormone function, which can put a person at higher risk of diabetes, low birth weight in infants, and impaired neurodevelopment.


"For the most part, decisions made to protect people from exposure to the hazards are based on their physical contact with the water or the sediment, or their consumption of seafood in the area. But I think there’s an underappreciated risk of just breathing the air," said Madeleine Scammell, an associate professor at the School of Public Health.

PCBs have been found in the harbor's sediment and water, and have also been found to have transfered into the air. However, very little research has been done on the impacts of inhaled PCBs, and the EPA does not have an established limit on what amount of PCBs are safe to breathe. Scammell said she hoped that this study could point to the fact that there is danger not just in touching contaminated water or sediment, but also in simply breathing in the area.

"What I hope changes in the future is that there’s more attention paid to releases of PCBs from water bodies into the air and the hazards posed to living and working in that area," she said. She added that at this point, there were no recommendations on how people could prevent themselves from breathing contaminated air if they lived in the area.

Earlier this year, the state announced a $24 million grant for 430 thousand cubic yards of contaminated sediment to be removed from the harbor, in what would represent a final phase in the state's decades-long cleanup efforts of one of the country's largest Superfund sites.

You can read the study here.