What are PCBs?
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are a group of 209 man-made compounds that generally occur as complex mixtures. PCBs are very persistent, lasting for decades in the environment. Like other persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals, PCBs move easily between air, water, and land. They are found throughout Washington. PCBs also accumulate in people and animals, becoming more concentrated in organisms at the top of the food chain, like orcas.
PCBs were produced for commercial uses from about 1929 until the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act banned the chemicals for most uses and restricted PCB concentrations to low levels. PCBs were used mostly in heat-transfer fluids in electrical transformers and capacitors, but also as plasticizers, wax and pesticide extenders, and lubricants. Caulk that seals cracks in buildings used to contain PCBs at high levels.
Toxicity and health effects
- PCBs have toxic effects to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in people and other organisms.
- PCBs also cause cancer in animals and are likely to cause cancer in people.
Sources and exposure
- Washington residents are primarily exposed to PCBs through diet — often by eating fish that contain PCBs.
- While commercial production of electrical transformers and other products made with high levels of PCBs has ended, new products can contain PCBs at low levels, either as unintentional contaminants or as inadvertent byproducts during manufacturing.
Taking action against PCBs
PCBs are a priority for us in several geographic areas, including the Duwamish River and the Spokane River. We are also concerned about PCBs as a contaminant in products like pigments used in inks and dyes. We have worked with stakeholders to identify important gaps in previous efforts to reduce PCBs and to prioritize additional steps to eliminate these toxic chemicals.
Chemical action plan recommendations
We, along with Department of Health, will continue existing programs, such as cleanup, permitting, stormwater management, and fish advisories.
Recommended new actions to reduce PCBs include:
- Identify PCB-containing lamp ballasts in schools and other public buildings. Encourage replacement with more energy-efficient PCB-free fixtures. See our PCB lights in schools replacement program for more information.
- Develop and promote best management practices to contain PCBs in building materials, both in structures currently in use and those planned for remodel or demolition.
- Assess schools and other public buildings for the presence of PCB-containing building materials.
- Learn more about what products contain PCBs.
- Promote the use of processes that don't inadvertently generate PCBs, starting with an alternatives assessment for pigments and dyes.
- Expand environmental monitoring to identify new areas requiring cleanup and to investigate air deposition.
- Conduct a public education campaign.
History of actions to address PCBs in Washington
2021: We partnered with Department of Health to conduct outreach to schools for the PCB lights in schools replacement program. We then gathered and analyzed this data to develop the program based on information obtained directly from schools. We began developing guidance for proper management and abatement of PCBs in building materials.
2020: We partnered with Department of Health to begin scoping a Product Replacement Program project to find and replace PCB-containing light ballasts in schools. We were also awarded funding to develop an approach to address PCBs in building materials
2019: We obtained funding to begin the Product Replacement Program. This program includes the PCB lights in schools replacement program.
2016: We published a study on PCBs in consumer products, showing the results of products we tested for the presence of PCBs.
2015: We finalized chemical action plan for PCBs.
2014: Washington Legislature passed a law requiring state agencies to purchase products without PCBs whenever possible.