Toxic Legacy: Understanding the Health Effects of Polychlorinated

7 min read

BiphenylsPolychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once widely used in manufacturing plastics, paints, adhesives, and dyes. In the US, Monsanto produced more than 50% of global PCBs in the 1930s.

However, it soon realized its toxic effects after large-scale production started in the commercial arena.

These chemicals have been banned in the U.S. since 1979 due to their toxicity and bioaccumulation ability in the food chain. Most people will never encounter PCBs directly.

However, exposure can occur through eating fish contaminated with these toxins or exposure to landfills or sediments containing them.

The Chemical Composition of PCBs

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of chemicals that have been used since the 1930s.

They have been used in electrical equipment, building materials, and adhesives. They were banned in the late 1970s due to their toxicity and persistence in the environment.

PCBs come primarily from industrial sources like waste incinerators or chemical manufacturing plants. They can also be released into the air or water by improper disposal of PCB-containing products such as transformers and capacitors.

The chemical composition of PCBs varies depending on where they're manufactured. However, all PCB mixtures contain chlorine atoms bonded with carbon atoms.

PCBs consist of a biphenyl core structure to which chlorine atoms are attached. The chemical formula for PCBs can be generalized as C12H10−xClx, where x represents the number of chlorine atoms attached to the biphenyl core.

The specific chemical structure of PCBs can vary based on the number and positions of chlorine atoms on the biphenyl rings. There are 209 different PCB congeners, each with a unique arrangement of chlorine atoms. The congeners are classified into different groups based on the degree and pattern of chlorination.

Some common groups include:

Mono-ortho PCBs: These have chlorine atoms in adjacent positions on one of the phenyl rings.

Di-ortho PCBs: These have chlorine atoms in adjacent positions on both phenyl rings.The chemical names of individual PCB congeners are often designated using numbers, such as PCB-28, PCB-52, PCB-101, etc., which indicate the number and positions of chlorine atoms on the biphenyl structure.

Health Effects of PCBs

PCBs are a group of chemicals that are used in many industrial and commercial applications. Exposure to PCBs has been linked to several health problems. According to TorHoerman Law, these chemicals have been linked to various forms of cancer. Some of these cancers include liver, brain, breast, and biliary tract cancers.

Besides cancer, PCBs are also associated with immune system effects, liver damage, and birth defects. PCB exposure has been linked to developmental and reproductive issues. In utero exposure has been associated with low birth weight, altered cognitive development, and impaired immune function in children.

PCBs can disrupt the endocrine system by interfering with the normal function of hormones. This disruption can lead to various health effects, including altered thyroid function, reproductive hormone imbalances, and developmental abnormalities.

You may experience symptoms linked to these problems due to PCB.

If you face any such PCB exposure symptoms, consult your doctor immediately. This is especially true if you are at a higher risk of being exposed to PCBs. Early diagnosis can help speed up the treatment process and prevent the condition from worsening.

Human Exposure to PCBs

PCBs are found in the environment, including air, water, and soil. They can also be found in many products, such as paints and adhesives for making electronics. PCBs enter the food chain through contaminated fish or animal fat.

PCBs can accumulate in the fatty tissues of fish, meat, and dairy products. People who consume contaminated food from animals exposed to PCBs may be at risk of exposure. Workers in industries that historically used PCBs, such as electrical manufacturing and waste management, may have been exposed to higher levels of PCBs.

PCB levels are higher in women than men because they accumulate more fats than men do during pregnancy. Women who consume high levels of PCBs transfer them to their babies through breast milk.

PCBs are stored in fat and are excreted through human milk, resulting in transfer to the baby. The most predominant PCBs are PCBs 138, 153, and 180because of their use, as they are widely used in commercial PCB mixtures.

Inhaling airborne particles or eating contaminated food exposes people directly to PCBs. However, exposure can also occur when these substances seep into groundwater from abandoned industrial sites.

Manufacturing plants revealed higher concentrations, like 709 ng g−1. PCB values between 107–233 ng g−1 were observed in various offices, schools, electronics factories, hospitals, and shopping malls.

Environmental Impact of PCBsThe environmental impact of PCBs is significant and has raised concerns for several reasons:

Persistence: PCBs are highly resistant to environmental breakdown, which means they persist in the environment for extended periods. This persistence can lead to long-term air, water, and soil contamination.

Bioaccumulation: PCBs tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues of organisms. This bioaccumulation becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain, a phenomenon known as biomagnification. Apex predators, such as large fish and mammals, can accumulate high levels of PCBs, posing a risk to those who consume them, including humans.

Toxicity: PCBs are toxic to both humans and wildlife. They have been linked to a range of adverse health effects, including developmental and neurological disorders, reproductive issues, and immune system suppression. The toxicity can vary depending on the specific type of PCB and the level of chlorination.

Airborne dispersal: PCBs can be released from contaminated sites or due to specific industrial processes. Once in the air, they can be transported over long distances and deposited in different locations, contributing to the widespread distribution of these compounds.

Contamination of water and soil: PCBs can enter water bodies through industrial discharges, runoff from contaminated sites, or atmospheric deposition. Once in the water, they can adsorb to sediments, where they can persist and threaten aquatic ecosystems.

Effects on wildlife: PCB contamination has been linked to adverse effects on wildlife, including fish, birds, and mammals. In addition to direct toxicity, PCB exposure can lead to reproductive impairments, developmental abnormalities, and altered behavior in various species.

Current Regulations and Monitoring: While PCBs are still a problem, regulations are in place to limit exposure. The EPA has set maximum levels for PCBs in drinking water. Thus, if you have a well and your drinking water contains more than those levels of PCBs, you can report this to the EPA.

This monitoring includes both drinking water and wastewater.

Such agencies worldwide are taking steps to mitigate the use of PCBs. In the last decade, Canada and the Czech Republic destroyed 99%of their PCB stocks. However, the U.S. has only managed to eradicate its PCB stocks by 3%.


PCBs are persistent environmental contaminants in the air, water, and soil. The chemical composition of PCBs has been well-studied, but their health effects and environmental impact are not completely understood. Current regulations and monitoring methods exist to mitigate exposure risks from PCBs, but there is room for improvement in both areas.

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