The permeation of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs is nothing short of epic. Because it was used in so many products, it has gotten into everything directly or indirectly. It is a real challenge to recycle even paper without tripping on legal statutes.
The laws that apply to toxic Monsanto PCBs (Monsanto Company was the only PCB producer in North America back in the day) are mainly the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) and the Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA). Both laws pertain to the amount that a toxic substance can be present in any substance.
In the case of old newspapers, recyclers find themselves in what is called the PCB paradox. The ink in these old newspapers contains PCBs among other harmful substances. The TSCA allows ink producers to use PCBs as a stabilizer as long as it is not more than 50 parts for million. What recyclers do is remove the ink and treat the PCBs, but still a little bit remains in the wastewater, which usually goes into the river or the sewage plant. At this point, the CWA regulations kick in, which prohibits wastewater with more than 64 parts per quadrillion of PCBs. That is about 700 million times less than what legally goes into the plant in the form of newspaper ink.
This is a decided blow on the recycling movement, because these federal regulations make this impossible on an industrial scale. However, it is important to remember that the small amounts of PCBs discharged into the environment at this point would not have been such a big deal if Monsanto had not already recklessly discharged thousands of pounds of PCB-laden effluent. As it is toxic Monsanto PCBs are everywhere and in everything at dangerous levels. The laws are simply trying to achieve a balance between industrial need and environmental protection. If anyone should be blamed for the PCB paradox, it is the PCB producer.