PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are much in the news in Montreal right at the moment because an illegal stash of PCB-laden material was recently found warehoused in a residential section of the suburb Pointe-Claire. The neighbours – who had no idea the stuff was there – are, understandably, not amused, given the reputation of PCBs for being very nasty indeed when it comes to human health. (Though a popular Montreal Gazette opinion columnist/radio-show host who is also a scientist argues here that the risk is generally blown out of proportion.)
Anyway, all this PCB news got me thinking – doesn’t everything? – about my childhood days at the Manse. Now I suppose you are wondering what on earth the two could have in common. Was there a dumpsite for toxic waste like PCBs in Queensborough back then? No, no, a thousand times no. Here’s what it was all about: dust control.
Nowadays the road that runs in front of the Manse (called Bosley Road, though it didn’t have a name when I was a kid, as far as I can recall) is paved, or at least the in-town section is. But when I was a kid growing up at the Manse in the 1960s and ’70s, it was not. And the thing about dirt roads in hot, dry summer weather is that they tend to get very dusty when vehicles pass over them, to the point where visibility can be hampered and it’s dangerous. So rural municipalities use various techniques to try to keep the dust down.
And way back in my childhood, a common technique was to regularly spread an oily and rather smelly substance on the dirt roads. I can still smell it, and I remember how we kids – who spent a lot of time out walking up and down the roads in those days – would wrinkle up our noses and complain about it when it had been freshly put down.
But all at once the practice stopped. Which I didn’t think very much about when I was a kid, but later in life I learned the probable reason: the oil that was commonly spread on rural dirt roads contained PCBs. (You can read about the practice here and here. Now, I don’t know for sure that the stuff the Elzevir Township road crews were spreading had PCBs in it, but I expect there is a pretty good chance.
Now, that all said, none of us seems to have suffered any dire consequences. And I have to say that despite the smell of the stuff (which in the end wasn’t all that bad), some of my happiest childhood memories are of going for long summer-day walks along the country roads around Queensborough, stopping to examine the wildflowers and cattails and little streams along the way.
Just call the scene “Rural Pastoral, With PCBs.”