PBBs, the poisonous industrial chemicals that caused the deaths of thousands of Michigan farm animals, have been found in three Ohio River catfish in what Environmental Protection Agency officials yesterday called "frightening" amounts.
The three affected fish were analyzed at Parkersbury, W. Va., only Monday, EPA officials told a House Commerce subcommittee whose members charged that no agency has taken firm action to search out the residues of this toxic chemical and avoid more tragedies.
"Three channel catfish may or may not represent the river," Dr. I. Eugene Wallen, deputy director of EPA's Office of Toxic Substances, emphasized "We can't tell people what they should or shouldn't do until we have more information."
But the catfish were taken from an area where the Borg-Warner Corp.'s Parkersburg plant used PBBs - polybrominated biphenyls - as fire retardants in making thousands of television set cabinets.
Federal health and environmental officials, weighing this and other recent information, said they fear they may be finding evidence of another nationwide environmental contaminant in a class with PCBs and DDT in its persistence.
"So far as we have been able to find out," no American firm now makes, uses or exports PBBs," Wallan said. EPA Administrator Douglas Costle last Friday ordered agency officials to prepare regulations to severly limit or ban any future production.
Nonetheless, 13 million pounds of PBBs were made between 1970 and 1976, and all may eventually wind up someplace in the environment to remain a potential problem for years.
EPA officials said they have started a study of other fish in the Parkersburg area. They said they are "urgently" studying fish and human hair and breast milk near Borg-Warner plants at Ottawa, Ill., and Oxnard, Calif., and five other plants which used PBBs in large amounts - General Tire and Rubber at Iona, Miss., Cincinnati Chemical Processing, Cincinnati E.A. Burkart Manufacturing, Cairo, Ill., and Corry Foam Product Co., at Milan, Tenn., and Corry, Pa.
If PBBs prove to be a river contaminant, Wallen added, the main result probably would be a ban on or limited use of some fish. "The drinking water's probably all right," he said. "This is a heavy material that sinks to the bottom."
It is there that bottom-feeders like the catfish abound. Though the FBBs in the three fish ranged from one to 20 parts per million, EPA officials said animal studies indicated even such amounts might cause problems in heavy fish-eaters.
Lakes and rivers in several parts of the United States and Canada have been closed to fishing because of similar findings in fish of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a closely related industrial chemical.
DDT, PBBs and PCBs all lodge in the fat of man and animals and remain there for years. All have been linked with both animal and human disease.
The nation first learned about PBBs after they accidentally got into Michigan animal feed. In 1973-74 this caused the death or destruction of Michigan cattle and hundreds of thousands of chickens.
Hundreds of Michigan farm families were also affected by ill effects ranging from nerve damage to lowered resistance to infections.
This summer mainly in the past week:
Doctors from Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York, have reported profound changes in the blood cells of many of Michigan's affected farm families, changes that lower resistance to disease.
EPA has found PBB residues in plant, fish, soil, water and human hair in the area of three New Jersey and has started analyzing sediments in the upper New York-Ontario area where PBB wastes were disposed of by Chemtrol Pollution Service of Model City, N.Y. Michigan officials have found "surface and groundwater contamination" in the area of a landfill used for PBB disposal.