PCBs in Everyday Items

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are still being produced and we are still coming in direct contact with them. They pose a real threat to human health and the environment.


"Current allowable PCB uses, along with the potential for their release into the environment, will continue so long as EPA's regulations allow it… EPA can no longer support the conclusion that they [PCBs] do not present unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment." 
Quoted from EPA Tribal Consultation Letter, Dec 15, 2011

What are PCBs?

PCBs are a group of manmade chemicals that have been manufactured since 1929 because they don't burn easily and are good insulating materials and plasticizers. They were banned from manufacture and use in the United States in 1979 due to health risks, however, they are still found in everyday products due to Congress allowing exceptions such as being produced as an inadvertent contaminant in things like caulk, paint, dyes, and pigments.

Where are PCBs found?

PCBs are currently allowed to be used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications. The regulations allowing use and distribution are discussed at NTTC's Potential PCB Regulatory Revisions page.

  • PCBs are allowable under current regulations (written Dec 2013) in things like electrical transformers, fluorescent light ballasts, mining equipment, hydraulic systems, switches, and circuit breakers.
  • There are more than 200 processes that legally generate PCBs and products designated as "PCB-free" can contain up to 50ppm PCB, such as paints, plastics, rubber products, pigments, and dyes. These are considered Excluded Products. This is not protective of our health and environment.
  • PCBs are created as by-products in the current manufacturing processes for certain pigments and some are being found in air, water, and sediments samples.
  • A child’s lunch napkin has enough PCBs in it to contaminate a small kiddie pool above drinking water standards. See P2 Webinar for details.
  • Very high levels of PCBs can be found in caulking and sealants used in construction or renovation of building before 1979. Non-liquid PCB applications >50ppm ARE NOT authorized for use, however, these products currently exist in schools, office buildings, and homes constructed prior to 1979.

How can I be exposed to PCBs?

  • The highest human exposures to PCBs are by people eating contaminated fish.
  • More than 1,000 fish advisories for PCBs are in effect throughout the United States and approximately 24% of all fish advisories are a result of PCB contamination in fish and shellfish. Significant contributions of PCBs to water bodies across the US originate from sources currently allowable by Federal regulations under the Toxic Substance Control Act.
  • Exposure to PCBs found in caulking and sealants used in construction before 1978, can occur via inhalation of PCB vapors and contaminated particulates, as well as via ingestion and dermal pathways.
  • Human exposure via clothing, napkins, and printed materials is possible. PCBs may enter the wastewater stream through disposal of paper and washing of clothing. See P2 Webinar for details

How can PCBs affect my health or the environment?

  • Preventing the production of PCBs is a critical public health issue because PCBs are associated with harm to health at very low concentrations.
  • PCBs are highly toxic and slow to break down in the environment.
  • PCBs bioaccumulate in the food web.
  • Certain PCBs are now known to cause cancer.
  • PCBs also harm the endocrine system, especially thyroid function. They are associated with adverse effects on the liver, reproduction and development, the nervous system, immune function, blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that PCB exposure is also associated with harmful effects on learning and behavior.

What can I do?

  • Learn more by researching the resources or watching the videos listed below.
  • Learn more and provide comments to EPA on the rules being revised for PCBs at Potential PCB Regulatory Revisions
  • Learn more about the PCBs on the Tribal Hazardous Substance website at PCBs (site under development)
Significance to Tribes:

Tribal participation in EPA’s January 2013 consultation call documented the following comments (four tribal participants participated in the call):

  • Tribal populations consume higher than average amounts of fish.
  • Concern over the presence of PCBs in fish and the potential sources of those PCBs.
  • Generally supportive of restricting the current use authorizations for PCBs. 

    The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation Department of Natural Resources offered the following comments on the US EPA’s proposed rules regarding the Reassessment of Use Authorizations for PCBs in (August 2010):

    As to "Reconsideration of the Use of the 50 ppm Level for Excluded PCB Products," we ask that you reduce the level to zero. There is no adequate justification for maintaining the 50 ppm level for these products. Specifically, the CTUIR DNR supports the elimination of PCBs from all dyes, pigments and inks, and encourages EPA to adopt rules mandating such a requirement.

    See CTUIR DNR's comment letter for details on pre-existing right to take fish that are safe to consume and the disproportionate environmental and public health impacts on tribal populations such as CTUIR.

    Please submit your experiences (successes/challenges) and tribal-specific documents to share on our website using the attached form:
     Case Study template

  • Resources:

    Carcinogenicity of PCBs and PBBs, 2-page by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Mar 2013:
     View document

    Nonlegacy PCBs: Pigment Manufacturing By-Products Get a Second Look, 8-page in Environmental Health Perspectives by Elizabeth Grossman, Mar 2013.
     View document

    EPA Fact Sheet – PCBs Update: Impact on Fish Advisories, September 1999 7-page includes sources, fate and transport, fish advisories, consumption limits, toxicity:
     View document

    Marcor Environmental – PCBs in Common Building Materials, March 2008 29-page compilation of article, slides, research studies:
     View document

    Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Fact Sheet: Sources of PCBs, 11-page, August 2003:
     View document

    EPA Fact Sheet – PCBs in Caulk, 3-page fact sheet with best management practices for reducing risk, testing, removal, and research:
     View document

    EPA Fact Sheet – PCBs in Caulk Q/A, 14-page includes PCB Exposure and Risk, PCB-containing caulk in school and other buildings, research, reducing PCB exposure:
     View document

    EPA Fact Sheet – Preventing Exposure to PCBs in Caulking Material, 4-page flyer with pictures:
     View document

    United Nations Environment Programme – Guidelines for the Identification of PCBs and Materials Containing PCBs, 40-page, August 1999:
     View document

    Wisconsin Division of Public Health – Health Effects of PCBs (Eating contaminated fish remains the major route of exposure to PCBs):
     View document


    EPA's Public Health Implications of Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs):

    EPA’s Watershed Assessment, Tracking & Environmental Results (to search for PCB-impaired waters):

    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Environmental Health Materials on PCBs:

    EPA Fish Consumption Advisories with Advanced Interactive Maps and Searches:

    Oregon Health Authority’s Guidelines to Reducing Your Exposure to PCBs and Other Fat-oluble Contaminants in Fish: healthyenvironments/ Environmental Exposures/ ToxicSubstances/ Pages/ pcbs.aspx

    Illinois Department of Public Health’s FAQ about PCBs:

    Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s Fish Links – PCBs in Fish Caught in CA: Information for People Who Eat Fish:

    Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s Fish Links – PCBs in Sport Fish: Answers to Questions on Health Effects:

    Webinars & Videos

    National Pollution Prevention Roundtable webinar as part of the 2025 Safer Chemistry Challenge Program, including WA State Department of Ecology and Spokane River Regional Toxic Task Force’s PCBs in Pigments: A State Government Perspective; Rutgers State University of New Jersey’s PCBs in pigments, inks, and dyes: Documenting the problem, June 2013; Professor R M Christie, Heriot Watt University, Alternatives for elimination of PCBs in pigments used for printing inks and architectural paints.

    EPA R9 2012 PCBs In Caulk Training – 58 slides:
     View document

    Food Sources of PCB chemical pollutants, 1:13:

    PCBs in Ballasts & Caulk; Clean, Green and Healthy Tribal Schools, 19:40 Includes a description of PCBs, where they can be found, bioaccumulation, reducing exposure in schools.

    Toxicity of PCBs and the effects of PCB contamination in foods, water and natural resources which can lead serious side effects such as endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity, 39:13:

    PCBs in the Hudson River, dredging and treatment; 5:46:

    Learn more about PCBs by watching "PCBs in our environment," 8:04:

    US Warning Do Not Eat the Fish in the Columbia River, newscast, 0:31:

    PCB Video by IAQ Video Network, 2:36:

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