Basic Information About PCBs

Protect team excavating PCB contaminated soil near a damaged power transformer.

There are many chemicals that can cause health and environmental problems if mishandled or accidentally released and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are a family of chemicals that require special consideration.  PCBs have several qualities that made them ideal for use in a multitude of products but over the years, the toxicity and other dangers of PCBs have become more apparent.  Production of most products that contained PCBs were banned in the United States after 1978.  However, PCBs can still be found in numerous places and can still pose a health risk to the public.

PCBs were commonly used in the production of transformers and capacitors as a coolant, insulation oil and hydraulic fluid due to its’ high flashpoint and chemical stability.  They were also used as additives in pesticides, cutting oils, flame retardants, paints, caulking and adhesives.  PCBs are classified as persistent organic pollutants because of their ability to accumulate in organic tissue and their resistance to environmental degradation.  Humans exposed to PCBs may develop skin abnormalities, fatigue, coughs and liver damage along with certain forms of cancer.

Many plants that manufactured PCB products leaked the PCBs into the soil and water around them; leading to massive environmental remediation efforts.  Also, caulk containing PCBs used in the construction of buildings may have contaminated adjoining materials.  If a building was constructed before 1979 and the lighting ballasts do not have labels that say “No PCBs”, the occupants of the structure may be at risk of PCB exposure.

Removal and disposal of waste materials such as liquids, soil, building materials and electrical equipment that contain PCBs is regulated by the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) which are found at 40 CFR Part 761.  There are many rules that categorize PCB wastes but in general the TSCA should be considered when PCB concentrations in the waste material are at or above fifty parts per million (50 PPM).  State and local governments as well as landfill operators decide where PCB wastes with concentrations below 50 PPM are accepted.

Any chemical spill or waste that is suspected of containing PCBs should be handled by competent contractors that have the equipment and knowledge needed to limit negative environmental and health impacts.  Protect Environmental is always ready to assist clients with accidental PCB discharges or remediation of areas contaminated with PCBs.

For more information on PCBs, visit the EPA webpage at: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/tsd/pcbs/index.htm

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