Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

What are Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

PCBs are a group of man-made chemicals consisting of 209 individual compounds of a similar chemical structure. They are either oily liquids or solids with no smell or taste. PCBs do not burn easily and are good insulating material. The United States ceased the production of PCBs in 1977 because of evidence of accumulation in the environment. PCBs were used mainly as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. They were also used in fluorescent lighting fixtures, microscope oil, and hydraulic fluids.

Who is exposed to PCBs?

The two main sources of exposures to PCBs are from the workplace or from the environment. Exposures in the U.S. workplace rarely occur because PCBs are no longer manufactured, but PCBs may leak from the repair and maintenance of PCB-containing electrical transformers or old electrical devices. Persons may be exposed to PCBs by consuming PCB-contaminated fish, meat, or dairy products.

How can PCBs affect my health?

Workers exposed to PCBs in the air for a long period of time have experienced irritation of the nose and lungs, as well as skin irritation such as acne and rashes. Experimental animals that inhaled very high levels of PCBs had liver and kidney damage. There is some evidence from studies of people exposed to PCBs at work and from laboratory animal studies that suggests PCBs may contribute to cancer of the liver and biliary tract.

How can I reduce the risk of exposure to PCBs?

You can reduce exposure to ingesting PCBs in contaminated fish by following fish consumption advisory recommendations set by state and federal government agencies. Virginia’s fish consumption advisories can be found at FishAdvisories.vdh.virginia.gov.

Children should be discouraged from playing with old appliances and electrical equipment that may contain PCBs. Children should also be discouraged from playing in dirt near hazardous waste sites or in areas where there was a transformer fire. After playing in dirt, children should wash their hands.

If you are exposed to PCBs at work, shower and change clothes before leaving work and launder work clothes separately from your other clothes.


Updated 2021