Polychlorinated biphenyl
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Basic Information

Polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, is a specific type of plastic, produced by adding Chlorine to plastic. Until the mid 1970s, they were used in all sorts of liquid plastic applications - hydraulic fluids, flame retardants, adhesives, paints, sealants - and as flexible plastic coatings for wires. They were even used in some surgical implants. Large plants (owned by General Electric and Westinghouse) dumped millions of pounds of PCB into the water in New York and Indiana.

Eventually, due to health issues linked to them, PCBs were made illegal in most of the industrialized world. Exposure to PCBs can lead to fatal liver failure, and cancer. When pregnant mothers are exposed to PCBs, it can interfere with the sexual development of the fetus, resulting in the children being hermaphrodites. Hermaphrodite Fish and Polar Bears were observed in places where PCB contamination had happened. Banning their production, however, did not eliminate the items that were already painted in PCB-laden compounds, nor remove the already spilled PCBs from environments. The Great Lakes of America still have high PCB levels, for example. In late 2008, pork in Ireland was found to be contaminated with PCBs that had somehow gotten into the animal's feed. As with most plastics, PCB does not currently biodegrade and will be on our planet for at least the thousands of years it takes for some plastic-eating microbe to evolve. Until then, be careful what you eat and drink.

See Also


2. Non-Fiction Book: World Without Us by Alan Weisman
3. Article that suggests pregnant women should remove all plastics from their homes so their children aren't born hermaphrodites. Seems a bit much.

Game and Story Use

  • A modern-day Ranger or Druid is disturbed by how many hermaphroditic animals in the region they've encountered lately. Turns out the local Mad Scientist or a powerful Mega Corp is manufacturing (and dumping) PCBs. If you don't stop them, ecological catastrophe will occur.
  • Since PCBs stay in the environment for so long, their genetic damage may slowly accumulate. See also Biomagnification.
    • If the resulting hermaphrodites remain fertile you could end up with evolutionary "progress" that eliminates gender in the future.
    • And if the hermaphrodites are sterile, you could face widespread extinctions, and the rapid reduction of populations in both humans and animals.
      • What would be the impact on society if 70% of children born are sterile hermaphrodites?
        • This could result in the spreading of the transhumanism meme as the new majority, incapable of having children, decide they're entitled to live forever instead. Especially if a public / society that was slow to adapt to the new reality treated the hermaphrodites as something other than human. Gender riots could result.
        • In Cyberpunk 2020 the disconnect from traditional human society and sexuality could be represented by lowered empathy or humanity scores. In a game derived from Call of Cthulhu, it could impair your sanity rating. Not exactly the most politically correct ways to handle it, but it'd be in keeping with the existing mechanics of the settings.
    • At a less extreme end, it could just result in reduced sexual dimorphism or greater incidence of liver failure in future humans.
  • A possible characterization detail for a very odd and paranoid NPC. "Leave your cellphone and sneakers in the entryway. My house is a plastic-free zone. I don't wanna wake up a hermaphrodite tomorrow! I ain't goin' the way of the Polar Bear."
  • By linking the poisoning and genetic damage to a particular school of magic or applied phlebotinum, you could adapt the above concepts to fantasy or other genres. Yes, that flaming sword sure is a great weapon - but if you're gonna carry it, you'd better not be a heavy drinker or plan to have children.
  • Generally a good example of unforeseen consequences - whilst dumping chemical waste into the environment is probably a predictably bad idea, there was no reason (especially back in the 1970s) to predict that these materials would turn out to cause foetal deformities and liver damage. Likewise, any cunning invention that crops up in a campaign can turn out to have hilarious consequences that no-one expected.
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