This is a fact sheet about a chemical that may be found in some public or
private drinking water supplies. It may cause health problems if found
in amounts greater than the health standard set by the United States
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is Polychlorinated biphenyls and how is it used?
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of organic chemicals which can
be odorless or mildly aromatic solids or oily liquids. They were formerly
used in the USA as hydraulic fluids, plasticizers, adhesives, fire retardants,
way extenders, de-dusting agents, pesticide extenders, inks, lubricants, cutting
oils, in heat transfer systems, carbonless reproducing paper.
The list of trade names given below may help you find out whether you are using this chemical at home or work.
Trade Names and Synonyms:
Why is Polychlorinated biphenyls being regulated?
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires
EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water which do or
may cause health problems. These non-enforceable levels, based solely on
possible health risks and exposure, are called Maximum Contaminant Level
The MCLG for PCBs has been set at zero because EPA believes this
level of protection would not cause any of the potential health problems
Based on this MCLG, EPA has set an enforceable standard called a
Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). MCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as
possible, considering the ability of public water systems to detect and
remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.
The MCL has been set at 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) because EPA
believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest
level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this
contaminant should it occur in drinking water.
These drinking water standards and the regulations for ensuring
these standards are met, are called National Primary Drinking Water
Regulations. All public water supplies must abide by these regulations.
What are the health effects?
Short-term: EPA has found PCBs to potentially cause the following health
effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for
relatively short periods of time: acne-like eruptions and pigmentation
of the skin; hearing and vision problems; spasms.
has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime
exposure at levels above the MCL: effects similar to acute poisonings;
irritation of nose, throat and gastrointestinal tracts; changes in liver
How much Polychlorinated biphenyls is produced and released to the
Production of PCBs has decreased drastically: from over 86 million lbs. in
1970 to 35 million lbs in 1977. Since EPA banned most uses of PCBs in
1979, current releases are due mainly to the cycling of this persistent
contaminant from soil to air to soil again. PCBs are also currently
released from landfills, incineration of municipal refuse and sewage
sludge, and improper (or illegal) disposal of PCB materials, such as
waste transformer fluid, to open areas.
From 1987 to 1993, according to EPA's Toxic Chemical Release
Inventory, PCB releases to land and water totalled over 74,000 lbs. The
bulk of these releases occurred in 1990 and were primarily from
non-ferrous wire drawing and insulating industries. The largest releases
occurred in California.
What happens to Polychlorinated biphenyls when it is released to the
PCBs are very persistent in soil and water, with no known break down
processes other than slow degradation by microbes. They adhere to soils
or evaporate, and so will not usually leach to ground water.
PCB-contaminated sediments in lakes or rivers can slowly release PCB
back into water, from which it eventually evaporates.
How will Polychlorinated biphenyls be detected in and removed from my
The regulation for PCBs became effective in 1992. Between 1993 and 1995,
EPA required your water supplier to collect water samples every 3 months
for one year and analyze them to find out if PCBs are present above some
lowest detectable level. If it is present above this level, which
differs for each type of PCB, the system must continue to monitor this
If contaminant levels are found to be consistently above the MCL,
your water supplier must take steps to reduce the amount of PCBs so that
it is consistently below that level. The following treatment methods
have been approved by EPA for removing PCBs: Granular activated
How will I know if Polychlorinated biphenyls is in my drinking water?
If the levels of PCBs exceed the MCL, 0.5 ppb, the system must notify the
public via newspapers, radio, TV and other means. Additional actions,
such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required
to prevent serious risks to public health.
This is a factsheet about a chemical that may be found in some
public or private drinking water supplies. It may cause health problems
if found in amounts greater than the health standard set by the United
States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Drinking Water Standards:
Mcl: 0.5 ppb (parts per billion)
Polychlorinated biphenyls Releases to Water and Land, 1987 to 1993 (in
TOTALS (in pounds)||
Top Five States|
* Water/Land totals only include facilities with releases greater
than a certain amount - usually 1000 to 10,000 lbs.
Note: This fact sheet is part of a larger publication
adapted from U.S. EPA publication: EPA National Primary Drinking Water