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Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

We work with the Washington State Department of Health, along with industry and environmental stakeholders to identify and take action against and to phase out the use, release, and exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Washington. Working with partners, we developed a chemical action plan to reduce or eliminate the use of these chemical compounds.

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 and 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.

Sources and exposure

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.

Electrical transformers and other products made before commercial production of PCBs ended may still contain PCBs. New products can also contain PCBs at low levels, either as unintentional contaminants or as inadvertent byproducts during manufacturing.

Washington residents are primarily exposed to PCBs through diet — often by eating fish that contain PCBs.

Toxicity and health effects

PCBs have toxic effects to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in humans and other organisms. PCBs also cause cancer in animals and are likely to cause cancer in humans.

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 such as 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

Ecology and the Washington State 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.
  • Develop and promote best management practices to contain PCBs in building materials, both in structures currently in use and those planning 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 and promote the use of processes that don't inadvertently generate PCBs. Start with an alternatives assessment for pigments and dyes.
  • Expand environmental monitoring to identify new areas requiring cleanup and investigate air deposition.
  • Conduct a public education campaign.

History of actions to address PCBs in Washington

2016 - Ecology publishes study on PCBs in consumer products.

2015 - Ecology finalizes chemical action plan for PCBs.

2014 - Washington Legislature passes law requiring state agencies to purchase products that don't contain PCBs whenever possible.