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PCB Health & Safety Information Free From Environmental Health & Safety Online

PCB Health & Safety Information Free From Environmental Health & Safety Online

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Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-447-1544. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. It's important you understand this information because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.

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HIGHLIGHTS: Polychlorinated biphenyls are a mixture of individual chemicals which are no longer produced in the United States, but are still found in the environment. Polychlorinated biphenyls can cause irritation of the nose and throat, and acne and rashes. They have been shown to cause cancer in animal studies. Polychlorinated biphenyls have been found in at least 383 of the 1,430 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What are polychlorinated biphenyls?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals (known as congeners). PCBs are either oily liquids or solids and are colorless to light yellow in color. They have no known smell or taste. There are no known natural sources of PCBs. Some commercial PCB mixtures are known in the United States by their industrial trade name, Aroclor.

PCBs don't burn easily and are good insulating material. They have been used widely as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. The manufacture of PCBs stopped in the United States in 1977 because of evidence that they build up in the environment and cause harmful effects. Products containing PCBs are old fluorescent lighting fixtures, electrical appliances containing PCB capacitors, old microscope oil, and hydraulic fluids.

What happens to PCBs when they enter the environment?

  • Before 1977, PCBs entered the air, water, and soil during their manufacture and use.
  • Today, PCBs can be released into the environment from hazardous waste sites that contain PCBs, illegal or improper dumping of PCB wastes, and leaks from electrical transformers containing PCBs.
  • PCBs may be carried long distances in the air; they remain in the air for approximately 10 days.
  • In water, a small amount of the PCBs may remain dissolved, but most sticks to organic particles and sediments.
  • PCBs in water build up in fish and marine mammals and can reach levels thousands of times higher than the levels in water.

How might I be exposed to PCBs?

  • Using old fluorescent lighting fixtures and old appliances such as television sets and refrigerators; these may leak small amounts of PCBs into the air when they get hot during operation
  • Eating food, including fish, meat and dairy products containing PCBs
  • Breathing air near hazardous waste sites that contain PCBs
  • Drinking PCB-contaminated well water
  • Repairing or maintaining PCB transformers

How can PCBs affect my health?

Animal testing is sometimes necessary to find out how toxic substances might harm people or to treat those who have been exposed. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals and scientists must follow strict guidelines.

People exposed to PCBs in the air for a long time have experienced irritation of the nose and lungs, and skin irritations, such as acne and rashes.

It is not known whether PCBs may cause birth defects or reproductive problems in people. Some studies have shown that babies born to women who consumed PCB-contaminated fish had problems with their nervous systems at birth. However, it is not known whether these problems were definitely due to PCBs or other chemicals.

Animals that breathed very high levels of PCBs had liver and kidney damage, while animals that ate food with large amounts of PCBs had mild liver damage. Animals that ate food with smaller amounts of PCBs had liver, stomach, and thyroid gland injuries, and anemia, acne, and problems with their reproductive systems. Skin exposure to PCBs in animals resulted in liver, kidney, and skin damage.

How likely are PCBs to cause cancer?

It is not known whether PCBs causes cancer in people. In a long-term (365 days or longer) study, PCBs caused cancer of the liver in rats that ate certain PCB mixtures.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that PCBs may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens.

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

There are tests to find out if PCBs are in your blood, body fat, and breast milk. Blood tests are probably the easiest, safest, and best method for detecting recent exposures to large amounts of PCBs.

However, since all people in the industrial countries have some PCBs in their bodies, these tests can only show if you have been exposed to higher-than-normal levels of PCBs. However, these measurements cannot determine the exact amount or type of PCBs you have been exposed to or how long you have been exposed. In addition, they cannot predict whether you will experience any harmful health effects.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?

The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level of 0.0005 milligrams PCBs per liter of drinking water (0.0005 mg/L). The EPA requires that spills or accidental releases into the environment of 1 pound or more of PCBs be reported to the EPA.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that milk, eggs, other dairy products, poultry fat, fish, shellfish, and infant foods contain not more that 0.2-3 parts of PCBs per million parts (0.2-3 ppm) of food.


A substance with the ability to cause cancer
Chemical Abstracts Service
Milligram (mg):
One thousandth of a gram
Parts per million


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 1996. Toxicological profile for polychlorinated biphenyls (update). Atlanta, GA; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

Where can I get more information?

Contact EHSO at 770-645-0788 for regulatory support, outsourced guidance, and remediation.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.

For more information, contact:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-447-1544
Fax: 404-639-6359

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Public Health Service
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Link to ToxFAQs Home Page

Link to ATSDR Science Corner

Link to ATSDR Home Page

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