polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Like bad teachers of our childhood, PCBs has left us indelible marks. A cooling fluid for electrical parts, she was a big star in fluorescent light fixtures and electrical appliances. Despite being banned in the U.S. in the late 70s she can still be found in detectable levels in human blood, fat and milk for virtually everyone living in developed countries. Most people are still exposed to PCBs by eating contaminated fish, meat and dairy products. Due to wind and water currents, Alaska’s people and wildlife suffer from extreme levels of exposure.

We would like to remember her classic shows, but we can’t: PCB exposures have been linked to lower IQ, hyperactivity, shortened attention span and delayed acquisition of reading skills. Oh, yes! all those electrical parts that were not properly disposed… and the old fluorescent lighting fixtures never replaced from schools and offices. When memory fails there is the carcinogen element to bring her career under a new light. Such a remarkable trajectory deserved a “global phase out” by the Stockholm Convention for Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001 and a third place on “Top Ten” list of environmental culprits that should be given high priority” by “Environmental Health Perspectives” magazine in 2012. It is about time for the highest honor of all: a Lifetime in Harm Toxie Award.


Even though she’s been banned since the 1970’s, PCB still has a way of getting on your (brain) nerves. Virtually all samples of human blood, fat or breast milk from people living in developed countries show some detectable level of PCBs. The majority of breast milk samples tested throughout the world show at least trace levels.

PCBs were produced in the U.S. beginning in 1929 to meet the electrical industry’s need for a less flammable cooling and insulating fluid. Studies on the toxicity of PCBs began in 1937 and in 1966 evidence of their harm and bioaccumulative potential surfaced when emaciated seabird corpses with high PCB body burdens washed up on shorelines.

Most people are exposed to PCBs by eating contaminated fish, meat, and dairy products. PCBs can also accumulate in the leaves and above-ground parts of plants and food crops. Older fluorescent lights found in schools, offices, and homes may still contain transformers or ballasts that contain PCBs. If the ballasts fail, PCBs can leak out and contaminate exposed surfaces and air.


The April 2012 issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives provided a “Top Ten” list of environmental culprits that should be given high priority by researchers. PCBs were third on this list.


This gal likes to cook your brain low and slow… PCBs have serious long-term health effects at surprisingly low levels.

The most serious effects of PCBs are on the brain. PCB exposures, particularly before birth, have been linked to lower IQ, hyperactivity, shortened attention span, and delayed acquisition of reading skills.

PCBs are also probable human carcinogens, based on animal studies and some studies of exposed workers. PCBs have been shown to imitate estradiol which may feed estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells, and possibly cause other cancers, such as uterine or cervical. She has no shame!
Despite years of research showing chronic health effects, PCBs were not banned until 1978. During the time that PCBs were manufactured there were often no effective controls on disposal and because they do not break down easily they are now found widely distributed in our environment.


People love to hate her, even on an international level! PCB production was targeted for global phase out by the Stockholm Convention for Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty signed by 170 nations around the world, in 2001.

PCBs were among the carcinogenic compounds listed that “needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity and devastate American lives” by the President’s Cancer Panel in 2010.


Superagent Monsanto Chemical Company manufactured 99% of the PCBs used by U.S. industry, producing 40 million pounds a year.

Superfund attorney Janet MacGillivray disclosed that a senior Bush Department of Justice official tried to pressure her into not testifying in a federal court reviewing a pollution cleanup.