Jackie Quinn had an idea. What if the system NASA developed for removing contaminants from building paint could also be used to clean up the environment? In her quest to find out, the engineer demonstrated NASA resourcefulness, starting out with a couple of plastic drinking straws she grabbed from a cafeteria at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The contaminants she was working against were polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly referred to as PCBs. When the molecules were first developed, they were added to paint because they are non-flammable and can withstand temperature extremes. That meant paint wouldn’t crack, peel or catch fire, all important qualities for buildings located near rocket launches.
But PCBs can also have negative effects on humans and animals, in particular by changing how their hormones function. This can result in physical and mental developmental issues.
“Nobody set out with the intent of hurting anyone when they developed PCBs,” said Quinn, an environmental engineer at Kennedy. “We just didn’t know. But when you do know, you’ve got to go fix it. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Banished but not Vanished
PCBs are rarely heard about, partly because they’ve been banned since 1976. But the cleanup has been difficult. According to a 2016 report from the United Nations’ PCB Elimination Network, PCBs are still the most globally widespread manufactured contaminant.
These molecules were used extensively in a wide array of applications, and as a result, they can be found all over the world leaching out of landfills and into the environment, making their way into soil and groundwater sources. A 2009 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that, in fish tissues sampled from 500 lakes around the United States, every single one had detectable levels of PCBs.
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