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My Watershed

Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Chemical Releases in Washington

By federal rule, persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs) have lower reporting thresholds under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) because they:

  • Are toxic and remain in the environment for a long time.
  • Are not readily destroyed.
  • Tend to build up or accumulate in body tissues of living things.
  • Increase in concentrations as they move through the food web.
  • Move easily through air, water, and land. They are widely distributed throughout the environment.
  • Have been linked to a wide variety of adverse health effects including nervous system damage, reproductive developmental problems, cancer, and genetic impacts (such as birth defects).

In 2015, PBTs accounted for 14% of total TRI releases in Washington, much lower than in 2014 (20%). These PBTs primarily come from metal mining, military operations, and cleanup activities at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Site.

The largest on-site releases of PBT chemicals by weight were lead and lead compounds. The majority (nearly 3.7 million pounds) were placed into landfills, mostly from cleanup activities at the Hanford site. Military training operations account for most of the remaining land releases due to the lead bullets left on or in the ground.

Comparing PBT and Non-PBT Chemicals in Washington's TRI, 2015 (in Pounds)

Type of Release Total Non-PBT PBT % of PBTs
On Site Release 21,892,077 18,426,045 3,465,032 15.8
Air 9,076,248 9,065,550 10,698 0.1
Land 10,578,661 7,125,700 3,452,961 32.6
Water 2,236,168 2,234,795 1,373 0.1
POTW*Disposal 376 360 16 4.3
Off Site Disposal 4,443,709 4,179,783 263,926 5.9
Total 26,335,162 22,606,188 3,728,974 14.2
*Publicly Owned Treatment Works, metals only.

PBT Chemicals Reported in Washington, 2015 (in pounds)

PBT Chemical # of Reports Released to Air Released to Water Released to Land Total On Site Releases POTW* Disposal Off-Site Disposal Total Released (On Site + POTW* + Off Site)
Benzo(g,h,i)perylene 20 648 3 220 871 0 790 1,661
Hexachlorobenzene 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Lead 68 117 42 3,245,994 3,246,153 16 170,350 3,416,519
Lead compounds 79 5,094 1,236 206,035 212,365 0 85,766 298,131
Mercury   4 4 0 11 15 0 0 15
Mercury compounds 20 328 9 133 470 0 318 788
Polychlorinated biphenyls 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Polycyclic aromatic compounds 31 4,508 83 568 5,159 0 6,279 11,438
Tetrabromobisphenol A 3 0 0 0 0 0 423 423
Total 227 10,698 1,373 3,452,961 3,465,032 16 263,926 3,728,975

*Publicly Owned Treatment Works, metals only.

Some release values are zero, even though a facility reported. This is because some facilities are required to report, even when they have no releases.

The amount of PBT releases might vary from year to year, but PBT chemicals bioaccumulate and do not break down. The impacts from these chemicals often increase over time, though exposure depends on where releases occur.

The majority of PBT releases are to land, and of these, most are placed into landfills. Military training operations occur on federal lands where public access is limited. Mining operations that leave PBT chemicals (such as lead) on the land in the form of mine tailings are usually in areas with low populations, limiting exposure.

These chemicals persist in humans and the environment, so even small amounts are a concern. More businesses are looking for safer alternatives to PBTs and other toxics, and many are making progress. For example:

  • Some ammunitions manufacturers offer bullets without lead.
  • Most thermometers and automobile electrical switches are now made without mercury.

*Publicly Owned Treatment Works

Facilities report dioxins and dioxin-like compounds in smaller quantities (grams instead of pounds) because they are more toxic. (There are 454 grams in one pound.)

In Washington, dioxin releases come from the manufacture of wood and paper products (64 percent), petroleum refineries (16 percent), hazardous waste treatment and disposal (10 percent), coal-fired power generation (8 percent), and the manufacture of cement and concrete products (2 percent).

Most dioxins are not produced on purpose. They are created when other chemicals or products are made. Pulp and paper production makes dioxins in the process that bleaches wood pulp. Dioxins are also produced when products are burned, such as when metals are smelted, hazardous waste is incinerated, or when coal is burned to generate electricity.

Overall, dioxin releases are at their lowest levels since 2003. In 2015, 22 facilities released a total of 22.9 grams of dioxins to air, land, and water in Washington State, a 37-percent decrease from 2014. Two facilities, Boise White Paper, LLC and Weyerhaeuser Natural Resources Company, contributed to this decrease by both reducing their releases of dioxins by 47 percent from the previous year. Most of Weyerhaeuser's releases were to water, while Boise's releases were mostly to land.

Image: chart showing dioxin data