What Are Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are mixtures of up to 209 individual chlorinated compounds (known as congeners). There are no known natural sources of PCBs since PCBs are no longer produced in the United States, but they are still found in the environment. PCBs are either oily liquids or solids that are colorless to light. Some PCBs can exist as a vapor in air. PCBs have no known smell or taste. Many commercial PCB mixtures are known in the U.S. by the trade name Aroclor. PCBs have been used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment because they don’t burn easily and are good insulators.

The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 because of evidence that PCBs build up in the environment and could cause harmful health effects. Products made before 1977 that may contain PCBs include old fluorescent lighting fixtures and electrical devices containing PCB capacitors.

What happens to PCBs when they enter the environment?

PCBs entered air, water and soil during their manufacture, use and disposal; from accidental spills and leaks during their transport; and from leaks or fires in products containing PCBs. PCBs can still be released to the environment from hazardous waste sites; illegal or improper disposal of industrial wastes and consumer products; leaks from old electrical transformers containing PCBs; and burning of some wastes in incinerators. PCBs do not readily break down in the environment and thus may remain there for very long periods of time. PCBs can travel long distances in the air and be deposited in areas far away from where they were released.

In water, a small amount of PCBs may remain dissolved, but most stick to organic particles and bottom sediments. PCBs also bind strongly to soil. PCBs are taken up by small organisms and fish and they are also taken up by other animals that eat these aquatic animals as food. PCBs accumulate in fish and marine mammals, reaching levels that may be many thousands of times higher than in water.

How might I be exposed to PCBs?

Exposure to PCBs may occur if old fluorescent lighting fixtures and electrical devices and appliances, such as television sets and refrigerators, that were made 30 or more years ago, are used. These fixtures, devices, and appliances may leak small amounts of PCBs into the air when they get hot during operation and also could be a source of skin exposure.

People can be exposed to PCBs by eating contaminated food. The main dietary sources of PCBs are fish (especially sport fish caught in contaminated lakes or rivers), meat and dairy products. Breathing air near hazardous waste sites and drinking contaminated well water may also expose someone to PCBs. Employees may be exposed to PCBs. In the workplace during repair and maintenance of PCB transformers; accidents, fires or spills involving transformers, fluorescent lights and other old electrical devices; and disposal of PCB materials.

How can PCBs affect my health?

Health effects that have been associated with exposure to PCBs include acne-like skin conditions in adults and neurobehavioral and immunological changes in children. PCBs are known to cause cancer in animals.

The most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are skin conditions such as acne and rashes. Studies in exposed workers have shown changes in blood and urine that may indicate liver damage. PCB exposure in the general population is not likely to result in skin and liver effects. Most of the studies of health effects of PCBs in the general population examined children of mothers who were exposed to PCBs.

Animals that ate food containing large amounts of PCBs for short periods of time had mild liver damage and some died. Animals that ate smaller amounts of PCBs in food over several weeks or months developed various kinds of health effects, including anemia; acne-like skin conditions; and liver, stomach and thyroid gland injuries. Other effects of PCBs in animals include changes in the immune system, behavioral alterations, and impaired reproduction. PCBs are not known to cause birth defects.

How likely are PCBs to cause cancer?

Few studies of workers indicate that PCBs were associated with certain kinds of cancer in humans, such as cancer of the liver and biliary tract. Rats that ate food containing high levels of PCBs for two years developed liver cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has concluded that PCBs may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens (substances that cause cancer). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that PCBs are probably carcinogenic to humans.

Is there a medical test to show whether I’ve been exposed to PCBs?

Tests exist to measure levels of PCBs in your blood, body fat, and breast milk, but these are not routinely conducted. Most people normally have low levels of PCBs in their body because nearly everyone has been environmentally exposed to PCBs. The tests can show if your PCB levels are elevated, which would indicate past exposure to above-normal levels of PCBs, but cannot determine when or how long you were exposed or whether you will develop health effects.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health from exposure to PCBs?

The EPA has set a limit of 0.0005 milligrams of PCBs per liter of drinking water (0.0005 mg/L). Discharges, spills, or accidental releases of 1 pound or more of PCBs into the environment must be reported to the EPA. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that infant foods, eggs, milk and other dairy products, fish and shellfish, poultry, and red meat contain no more than 0.2-3 parts of PCBs per million (0.2-3 ppm). Many states have established fish and wildlife consumption advisories for PCBs.

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