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PCBs; A Forgotten Legacy?

The Stockholm Convention requires Parties to phase out PCB use in equipment by 2025 and ensure elimination of PCB by 2028. United Nations Environment's Chemicals and Health Branch, as the Secretariat of the PCB Elimination Network, reviewed progress in eliminating PCBs.

ATSDR Case Studies

Evidence shows that exposures to high concentrations of PCBs cause adverse dermal effects in humans. On the basis of sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and experimental animals, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified PCBs as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).

The Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Priority

POPs are toxic to humans and wildlife, remain intact in the environment for long periods, and accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms. Exposure can lead to serious health problems, including cancers, birth defects, and damage to reproductive and immune systems.

PCB UN Explainer Video

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals. They are oily liquids or solids, clear to yellow in color, with no smell or taste. PCBs are very stable mixtures that are resistant to extreme temperature and pressure. PCBs were used widely in electrical equipment like capacitors and transformers.

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FAQ

Why are PCBs harmful to human health and the environment?

PCBs have been linked to human cancer as well as liver dysfunction, digestive disorders, chloracne, headaches, nausea, and fatigue. PCBs can also affect the respiratory, immune, nervous systems and cause a variety of reproductive disorders, including male sterility, developmental abnormalities, learning disorders, and birth defects.

When released into the environment, PCBs do not easily break apart and form new chemical arrangements (i.e., they are not readily biodegradable). Instead, they persist for many years, bioaccumulate, and bioconcentrate in organisms. Well-documented tests on laboratory animals show that various levels of PCBs cause reproductive effects, gastric disorders, skin lesions, and cancerous tumors. Exposure to PCBs in humans can cause chloracne (a painful, disfiguring skin ailment), liver damage, nausea, dizziness, eye irritation, and bronchitis.

 

PCBs may enter the body through the lungs, the gastrointestinal tract, and the skin. After absorption, PCBs are circulated in the blood throughout the body and are stored in fatty tissues and a variety of organs, including the liver, kidneys, lungs, adrenal glands, brain, heart, and skin. PCBs pervade the environment. Measurable amounts of PCBs have been found in soils, water, fish, milk, and human tissue.

When and why were PCBs made?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of persistent, dangerous man-made chemicals. Developed in 1929, PCBs were used widely across the world in flame retardants of everyday goods, the insulating material in electrical equipment, such as transformers and capacitors; and also in heat transfer liquids, dielectric fluids, caulks, paints, and lubricants.

 

PCBs were finally banned in the U.S.A in 1979, but irreversible damage was done to the U.S and global waterways. Over 100 nations in the world still use PCBs, finding their way into land and water.

Will the PCBs ever be cleaned from the environment?

No. Not with the current methods being used. Even in the present day, only 4% of the total PCBs manufactured have been destroyed, globally. PCBs continue to be released into the environment through spills, leaks from outdated electrical and other equipment, and improper disposal and storage.

PCBs: What are they and why are they considered a problem?

The major problem is that 94% of America’s waterways sampled by EPA are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that do not degrade naturally in the environment.

PCBs are now the most widespread contaminant on earth.

Due to industrialization, almost every country used and still uses PCBs to manufacture everyday goods. It is estimated that more than half of the PCBs ever produced have been released into the environment, causing worldwide animal, community, and human health damage estimated into the trillions of dollars.