Polychlorinated naphthalene (PCN) products are made by chemically reacting chlorine with naphthalene, a soft, pungent solid made from coal or petroleum and often used for mothproofing. The generic chemical formula is C10H10-nCln. Commercial PCNs are mixtures of up to 75 chlorinated naphthalene congeners plus byproducts and are often described by the total fraction of chlorine. As the chlorine proportion grows, PCNs become increasingly waxy or firm solids at room temperature. Some PCNs make effective insulating coatings for electrical wires. Others have been used as wood preservatives, as rubber and plastic additives, for capacitor dielectrics and in lubricants.
PCNs started to be produced for high-volume uses around 1910 in both Europe and the United States. In Europe the largest volume products were called Nibren waxes, made in Germany by Bayer. Other European PCN tradenames included Seekay (UK, from ICI), Clonacire (France), Cerifal (Italy) and Woskol (Poland). In the United States, the largest volume PCN products were called Halowax, from a New York company of the same name that was later owned by Union Carbide and then taken over by Koppers of Pittsburgh, PA, now Beazer East. Although trace amounts of PCNs may be released by natural processes such as wildfires, their industrial uses increased the apparent rates of accumulation in the environment by factors of 10,000 or more.
After about twenty years of commercial production, health hazards began to be reported in workers exposed to PCNs: severe skin rashes and liver disease that led to deaths of workers. A conference about the hazards was organized at Harvard School of Public Health in 1937, and several more publications dealing with PCN hazards appeared before 1940. PCNs containing three or more chlorines per molecule have typically been found more hazardous than those with fewer, but as the maximum of eight is approached, hazards appear to decrease.
There was a lag of about forty years between disclosure of PCN hazards and government regulation. In the U.S. exposure to PCNs was drastically reduced after 1976, following enactment of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Major equipment manufacturers banned PCNs in their products, and major PCN producers discontinued operations. By 1983 worldwide PCN production had almost halted except for small amounts used in testing and research. Until recent years duPont produced a synthetic rubber, Neoprene FB, made in Northern Ireland using pentachloronaphthalene. Today PCNs are offered commercially by only a few companies, including Ukrgeochem of Simferopol, Ukraine.
While some PCNs can be broken down by sunlight and, at slow rates, by certain microorganisms, many PCNs persist in the environment. After more than 80 years of use and total production of several hundred million kilograms, PCN residues are widespread. Acute exposure causes chloracne. Chronic exposure increases risk of liver disease. Increased cancer risks have been suspected but so far not shown. Current concerns about PCNs include their release as byproducts of waste incineration.
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