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What are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)?

PCBs are a group of industrial chemicals that share a common structure. They are oily liquids or solids, clear to light yellow in color, and have no smell or taste. They don't occur naturally in the environment. They may also be referred to as Aroclors, a popular trade name of commercial PCB mixtures.

PCBs don't break down in the environment easily. However, they have excellent electric conductive properties and, in the past, were widely used as coolants, insulating materials, and lubricants in electrical equipment like transformers and capacitors. The United States stopped making them in 1977 because of potential health effects associated with exposure as seen in laboratory animals.

What happens to PCBs when they enter the environment?

They enter air as solid or liquid aerosols or vapor and can stay in air more than 10 days.

Most stick tightly to soil particles and bottom sediments in the water; a small amount dissolves in water.

How might I be exposed to PCBs?

Most individuals living in the Western Hemisphere have been come in contact with and therefore have some level of PCBs in their bodies. Most people, however, are never harmed by PCBs. Exposure can occur in several ways:

  • Breathing workplace air (indoor air around electrical parts) or near hazardous waste sites.
  • Skin contact with PCB-contaminated soil or use of old fluorescent light fixtures and electrical devices and appliances like TV Sets and refrigerators made 30- 40 years ago. These things may leak small amounts of PCBs into the air when they get hot during use and result in skin or inhalation exposure.
  • Swallowing food, soil, or water having PCBs. This can occur when a person consumes fatty fish, meat and dairy products contaminated with PCBs, or accidentally eats or absorbs contaminated soil on rooted foods or after working with soil and not washing hands thoroughly.

What can be done to keep PCBs out of my body?

  • Avoid drainage ditches, wading or fishing in water known to have PCBs.
  • Use gloves when digging in the soil to help avoid direct contact with the soil.
  • Wash hands well for 30 seconds including under fingernails where soil may collect.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables carefully before eating them. However, do not grow or eat rooted vegetables (like potatoes, carrots, turnips) in soil contaminated with PCBs.
  • Dust the house often with a damp cloth to keep PCBs from getting into the air or decrease the amount of dust in the home.

How can PCBs affect my health?

Exposure to PCBs does not mean that you will become sick. Whether you get sick depends on five things:

  • How many PCBs are in your body, i.e. how much
  • How long you were exposed
  • How your body reacts to PCBs
  • How old you were when exposed
  • Whether the PCBs were mixed with other chemicals.

The type and severity of problems not only depend upon these previously mentioned points but also important is the age, sex, and weight of the person and whether he/she has any current health problems or weakness toward the chemical. People differ in how they are affected by chemicals with which they come in contact. For example, the health effect on a young child is greater than in an adult because of his age, weight, and immune system which is not fully developed.

Most of what we know about the human health effects of PCBs comes from studies on individuals that worked with/near PCBs in the past and studies with lab animals. Levels in the workplace are usually much higher than at other places. Workers are exposed to PCBs from breathing air and contact with their skin.

The most commonly seen health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are:

  • Skin conditions like acne and rashes.
  • Ear, nose, throat, and eye irritation, burning and swelling.

Less common chronic conditions include:

  • Anemia
  • Distortion of finger and toenail shape and strength
  • Low birth weight
  • Poor memory function of infants and children from exposure in utero
  • Cancer of the gall bladder, liver, stomach and digestive tract, and
  • Thyroid injuries

Is there a medical test to determine if I have been exposed to PCBs?

There are tests to find out if PCBs are in the blood, body fat, and breast milk. These tests are not routine chemical tests, but they can detect whether you have been exposed. Talk with your doctor or occupational health care professional to discuss whether you should be tested. Understanding what the test results mean will be explained by your physician.

Where can I get more national information?

Contact: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry, Division of Toxicology, 1600 Clifton Rd. NE, Mailstop E-29, Atlanta GA 30333. Phone: 1-888-422-8737. To obtain their Fact Sheet, ToxFAQs, the Internet address is: http://www.atsdr.gov/toxfaq.html.

Where can I get more information?

LaNetta Alexander, Director
Environmental Epidemiology Section
Indiana State Department of Health
(317) 351-7190 Ext 262

This fact sheet was supported in whole by funds from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.