Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Trade Names for different mixtures (partial list) Aroclor, Pyranol, Pyroclor, Phenochlor, Pyralene, Clophen, Elaol, Kanechlor, Santotherm, Fenchlor, Apirolio, Sovol.


Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are mixtures of chlorinated hydrocarbons that have been used extensively since 1930 in a variety of industrial uses, including as dielectrics in transformers and large capacitors, as heat exchange fluids, as paint additives, in carbonless copy paper and in plastics.

The value of PCBs for industrial applications is related to their chemical inertness, resistance to heat, non-flammability, low vapour pressure, and high dielectric constant.

There are 209 possible PCBs, from three monochlorinated isomers to the fully chlorinated decachlorobiphenyl isomer. Generally, the water solubility and vapour pressure decrease as the degree of substitution increases, and the lipid solubility increases with increasing chlorine substitution. PCBs in the environment may be expected to associate with the organic components of soils, sediments, and biological tissues, or with dissolved organic carbon in aquatic systems, rather than being in solution in water.

PCBs volatilize from water surfaces in spite of their low vapour pressure, and partly as a result of their hydrophobicity; atmospheric transport may therefore be a significant pathway for the distribution of PCBs in the environment.

The toxicology of PCBs is affected by the number and position of the chlorine atoms, as substitution in the ortho position hinders the rotation of the rings. PCBs without ortho substitution are generally referred to as coplanar and all others as noncoplanar. Coplanar PCBs, like dioxins and furans, bind to the AL-receptor and may exert, thus, dioxin-like effects, in addition to AL-receptor independent effects which they share with non-coplanar PCBs (e.g. tumor promoter).

Usage in South East Asia


Used or Found in Country?

Years of Usage

Regulatory Controls
















Import banned in 1975, fully banned in 2004.



Banned in 1994




Viet Nam


(table references)

Human Exposure

Association between elevated exposure to PCB mixtures and alterations in liver enzymes, hepatomegaly, and dermatological effects such as rashes and acne has been reported. Adverse effects are predominantly associated with higher blood concentrations.

Contamination of rice oil by PCBs in Japan (1968) and Taiwan (1979) has resulted in the exposure of a large number of people to PCBs and their contaminants PCDFs. Signs and symptoms of exposure from these incidents include enlargement and hyper secretion of the Meibomian glands of the eyes, swelling of the eyelids, and pigmentation of the nails and mucous membranes, occasionally associated with fatigue, nausea and vomiting. This was followed by hyperkeratosis and darkening of the skin with follicular enlargement and acneform eruptions, often with a secondary staphylococcal infection.

Children born up to 7 years after maternal exposure in the Taiwan incident had hyperpigmentation, deformed nails and natal teeth, intrauterine growth delay, poorer cognitive development up to 7 years of age, behavioural problems and higher activity levels. The affected children appeared to "catch up" to controls at 12 years of age. Children born seven to twelve years after maternal exposure experienced mildly delayed development, but no differences in behaviour. Effects observed in these children is likely a result of the persistence of PCBs in the human body, resulting in prenatal exposure long after the exposure took place.

These effects are consistent with the observations of poorer short term memory functioning in early childhood, in children exposed prenatally by mothers who had high consumption of Lake Michigan sports fish containing PCBs, amongst other POPs.

People exposed in the Yucheng incident had low resistance, and suffered from a variety of infections. Examination during the first year revealed decreased concentrations of IgM and IgA, decreased percentages of total T-cells, active T-cells and helper T-cells, but normal percentages of B-cells and suppressor T-cells; suppression of delayed type response to recalling antigens; enhancement of lymphocyte spontaneous proliferation and an enhancement in lymphoproliferation to certain mitogens. After three years, some, although not all, of the effects had disappeared. Cancer deaths in both male and female workers involved in the manufacture of electrical capacitors were significantly increased. A significant increase in haematological neoplasms and gastrointestinal cancers was observed in male workers. A non-significant increase in lung cancer was observed. The study was, however, limited by the small numbers of deaths.

IARC has concluded that there is limited evidence for the carcinogenicity of PCBs in humans, and there is sufficient evidence in experimental animals. PCBs are therefore classified as probable humans carcinogens (Group 2A).

Animal Exposure

PCBs have a low acute toxicity to laboratory animals, with acute oral LD50 values in rats in the range of 2 to 10 g/kg body weight. Effects are manifested primarily through chronic exposure. Effects on the liver, skin, immune system, reproductive system, gastrointestinal tract and thyroid gland have been observed and associated with exposure to PCB mixtures or individual congeners.

Adverse reproductive effects observed in several studies on monkeys exposed to PCBs include low birth weights, skin hyperpigmentation, behavioural disturbances, atrophy of the thymus and lymph nodes, bone marrow hypoplasia, and hyperplasia of the gastric mucosa. Female Rhesus Monkeys fed diets containing Aroclor 1016 in the diet were bred after 7 months of dietary exposure. Neonatal weights in the 1.0 ppm group were significantly decreased.

PCBs have not been observed to be teratogenic in studies involving rats and non-human primates when tested orally, during critical periods of organogenesis. A moderate but statistically significant inhibitory effect on the immune system of rhesus monkeys has been observed, resulting from chronic, low level exposure to Aroclor 1254 and that these effects may be due to altered T-cell and/or macrophage function.

PCBs have a low acute toxicity to birds, with 5-day dietary LC50 values in the range of 747 mg/kg diet in quail to >5,000 mg/kg in several species. Broiler breeder and leghorn hens who were fed diets Aroclor 1242 for one week experienced reduced hatchability and the effects continued after exposure was terminated.

There is growing evidence linking persistent halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons such as PCBs to reproductive and immunotoxic effects in wildlife. Two groups of 12 female seals (Phoca vitulina) were fed diets of fish from the western part of the Wadden Sea, or from the north-east Atlantic. Residue analysis showed statistically significant differences between the two diets for PCBs and DDE. The average daily intake for group 1 was 1.5 mg PCBs and 0.4 mg DDE, and 0.22 mg and 0.13 mg for group 2. Females were mated with undosed males and reproductive success was significantly lower in group 1.

Mink fed Lake Michigan Coho salmon containing between 10 and 15 ppm PCBs as 30% of their diet for five months failed to whelp as did those fed a diet containing 5 ppm Aroclor 1254. The clinical signs and lesions observed in mink fed a diet containing Lake Michigan coho salmon included anorexia, bloody stools, fatty liver, kidney degeneration and gastric ulcers, and were similar to those fed a diet supplemented with PCBs.

Aquatic Organism Exposure

PCBs are toxic to aquatic organisms, with 96-hour LC50 values in the range of 0.015 mg/L in fathead minnows to 2.74 mg/L in bluegills. Fathead minnows were exposed to Aroclor 1242, 1248 or 1254 in a continuous flow bioassay for 9 months. Reproduction occurred at and below 5.4 µg Aroclor 1242/L, however, results were highly variable.

A significant reduction in spawning was observed in fish exposed to 1.8 µg Aroclor 1254/L. Early life stages of fish are more sensitive to the effects of dioxins, furans, and PCBs. Parts per trillion concentrations of these structurally related chemicals in Lake Trout and Rainbow Trout eggs produce toxicity through sac fry mortality associated with yolk sac edema and haemorrhages.


The degradation of PCBs in the environment depends largely on the degree of chlorination of the biphenyl, with persistence increasing as the degree of chlorination increases. Half-lives for PCBs undergoing photodegradation range from approximately 10 days for a monochlorobiphenyl to 1.5 years for a heptachlorobiphenyl. The persistence of PCBs, combined with the high partition coefficients of various isomers (log KOW ranging from 4.3 to 8.26) provide the necessary conditions for PCBs to bioaccumulate in organisms. Bioconcentration factors of 120,000 and 270,000 have been reported in fathead minnows. Concentration factors in fish exposed to PCBs in their diet were lower than those for fish exposed to PCBs in water, suggesting that PCBs are bioconcentrated (taken up directly from the water) as opposed to being bioaccumulated (taken up by water and in food).

The chemical properties of PCBs (low water solubility, high stability, and semi-volatility) favour their long range transport, and PCBs have been detected in Arctic air, water and organisms.

The main source of PCB exposure to the general population is through food, especially fish.

PCB residues were detected in 8.5% of samples, with a maximum of 0.30 mg/kg fat, taken during a survey of the fat of domestic farm animals in Ontario, Canada between 1986 and 1988.

In a survey of foods in Vietnam, the highest levels of PCBs were detected in fish and shellfish, with levels of 760 and 1,400 µg/g fat. The main sources of PCBs in the Vietnamese diets is cereals (including rice) and vegetables, and the daily intake of 3.7 µg/person/day is comparable to those of some industrialized countries .

A survey of foods in India also found that the highest levels of PCBs were in fish, with an average of 330 ng/g fat. Again, the main source of PCB dietary intake (0.86 µg/person/day) was cereal and vegetable oil.


For more information:

Transformer oil storage drums in Vientiane, Lao PDR
Source: Hatfield Consultants
Hatfield Consultants The World Bank funded by the Canadian POPs Trust Fund through the      
Canadian International Development Agency
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