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Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

What are Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

Polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly called PCBs, are manufactured mixtures of up to 209 chlorinated compounds. 

U.S. production of PCBs stopped in 1977 because of suspected harmful health and environmental effects. 

Before 1977, PCBs were used as insulation, coolants, and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. They were used in plasticizers, surface coatings, inks, adhesives, pesticides, and other products.

PCBs are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and endocrine disruptors.

See also: Factories Food and Cooking Drinking Water Air Pollution Cancer Learning and Developmental Disabilities Reproductive Health

Where are Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) found?

  • Consumer and electrical products made before 1977 - old fluorescent lights, electrical devices, and microscope oils
  • Air – from leaks or fires in older electrical equipment, or incinerators
  • Food and water – contaminated fish, game animals, or sources of water

How can I be exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) commonly enter(s) the body through:


Ingestion (swallowing)

  • Eating contaminated fish or game animals, drinking contaminated water

Inhalation (breathing)

  • Breathing contaminated air from older equipment, disposal of industrial waste, or incinerators

Skin contact

  • Touching older products or equipment made with PCBs

What happens when I am exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

Exposure to PCBs can cause:

  • Skin conditions
  • Irritation of the eyes

Long-term exposure to high levels of PCBs can cause:

  • Respiratory tract symptoms
  • Developmental effects
  • Liver and gastrointestinal effects
  • Neurobehavioral and immunological changes in children
  • Reduced fertility in women
  • Miscarriage
  • Reduced birth weights of babies exposed as fetuses
  • Cancer

High exposure may result in coma and death.

Who is at risk for exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

  • Consumers
    • Older electrical equipment, food, and water can contain PCBs.
  • Women of childbearing age
    • Exposure can cause reduced fertility, miscarriage, or reduced birth weight of babies.
  • Infants
    • Women exposed when pregnant may have PCBs in breast milk.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to PCBs, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you use older equipment that contains PCBs?
  • Do you eat contaminated fish from lakes and rivers, or game animals that have fed on smaller animals?
  • Do you have old fluorescent light bulbs that may contain PCBs?
  • Are you remodeling or renovating an old home?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Do you live near industrial waste sites?
  • Avoid fish that may be high in PCBs. Remove the skin and fatty areas from fish before cooking.
  • Minimize the amount of animal fat you eat.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them.
  • Replace old fluorescent lightbulbs containing PCBs. Properly discard old bulbs.
  • Regularly sweep, dust, and change furnace filters to reduce airborne PCBs.
  • Routinely test your well water for PCBs. 
  • If your well water has high levels of PCBs, contact your local or state health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for information on how to reduce your exposure.
  • If your well water contains PCB levels above EPA’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking or install an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.
  • When remodeling older homes, use proper ventilation and protective equipment to minimize exposure to PCB-containing caulk, paint, and other building materials.
  • Avoid contact with contaminated soils.
  • Don’t let children to play in dirt near waste sites, factories, or industrial sites that may contain old electrical equipment.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

Additional Resources

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) (Arochlors)
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Resource on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (arochlors) that includes information on their physical properties, uses, sources and potential exposure, and associated health hazards.
  • What are PCBs?
    Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center
    Resource on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that includes information on their uses, associated health effects, and special populations at risk of exposure.
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls. ToxFAQs
    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    Factsheet with answers to most frequently asked questions about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exposure and their effect on human health, developed by a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.
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