Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of chemicals that were widely used in building materials, appliances and electrical equipment until the use ban in the late 1970's. In this FAQ, we hope to provide you with general information on the hazards, sources, regulation and disposal of PCBs, as well as help you determine if PCB-impacted materials may be a concern for your business or project. Just click on one of the questions below for more information.
PCBs - GENERAL
What are PCBs?
PCBs are the common name for a class of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls. They are man-made and do not occur naturally. Manufactured PCBs are typically oily liquids, either colorless or light-yellow in color, with no smell or taste.
First manufactured commercially in the United States in 1929, PCBs were found to have many uses due to heat resistant and fire retardant properties. They were used in a variety of products that include hydraulic fluid, pigments, carbonless copy paper, vacuum pumps, compressors, heat transfer systems, caulking, and in household appliances, such as refrigerators, television sets, and fluorescent lighting fixtures.
The primary use of PCBs, however, was as a dielectric fluid (a fluid that doesn’t conduct electricity) in electrical equipment. They were used in this fashion because of stability and resistance to thermal breakdown, as well as insulating properties. As a result, PCB oil was the fluid of choice for transformers and capacitors for many years; and, because of its fire resistance, it was actually required by some fire codes.
What are the Hazards of PCBs?
According to the U.S. EPA, PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer in animals and are considered to be a probable human carcinogen. They have also been shown to cause a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system. Exposure to PCBs can result from breathing in contaminated air, ingesting contaminated food or water, or skin/eye contact with PCB-containing materials.
Prior to the ban in 1979, PCBs entered the environment during its manufacture and use in the United States. Since then, PCBs can still be released into the environment from poorly maintained hazardous waste sites, illegal dumping of PCB wastes, leaks from PCB-containing electrical transformers and illegal disposal of PCB-containing products in landfills.
Once in the environment, PCBs do not readily break down. Therefore, they may persist for long periods of time cycling between air, water and soil. PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far away from where they were released into the environment. As a consequence, PCBs are found all over the world.
Because PCBs persist in our environment, they can accumulate in plants and food crops and, in turn, be ingested by humans or animals. They can also be taken up directly into the bodies of small organisms and fish. As a result, people who ingest meat, dairy or fish may be exposed to PCBs that have bioaccumulated.
Important factors for understanding possible health effects from exposures to PCBs include how an exposure occurs (skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion) and how long an exposure occurs. Because PCBs are present today in our environment, exposures can occur in everyday life. Both the type of contact with PCBs as well as the duration of contact determines the extent of an exposure, and whether a health effect may occur.
How Are PCBs Regulated?
In the United States, PCBs are mainly regulated at the federal level through several different laws. The most significant of these laws is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Enacted by Congress in 1976, TSCA granted the U.S. EPA the authority to ban the manufacture of PCBs and regulate its use and disposal. The U.S. EPA accomplished this by issuing regulations in 1978 and several rules over the years. The regulations banned the manufacture and import of PCBs in 1979 but allowed the continued use of PCBs in certain types of electrical equipment. This was based on a finding by the U.S. EPA that such uses do not pose an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment, provided certain use conditions are met. Thus, some PCB-containing equipment remains in service and in use today. These are known as “authorized uses” by the U.S. EPA.
In 1998, the Disposal Amendments were published in the Federal Registry to regulate the characterization, cleaning up, containment and disposal of PCBs. Found in 40 CFR Parts 750 and 761, these amendments are commonly referred to as the "Mega Rule".
Regulatory agencies have developed conservative, generic, screening levels that are considered to be “safe” levels of chemicals to which people can be exposed under most circumstances. These are levels to which people could be exposed without suffering health effects. Higher (and still health protective) levels could be developed on a site-specific basis. These levels take specific characteristics of the site into account.
Under TSCA, the U.S. EPA has established acceptable levels for PCBs in soil and on surfaces (such as floors, walls, tanks, pipes, etc.). The applicable level depends on whether the soil or surface is accessible and how frequently it is accessed. For example, exposed PCB-impacted soil can have different acceptable levels than if it were covered with 6 inches of concrete. TSCA has also established higher acceptable levels for areas defined as “low occupancy”. In these areas, workers may be present for 6.7 hours or fewer each week during a worker’s lifetime.
Do I Need a PCB Remediation Contractor?
Although the manufacturing of PCBs was banned in the late 1970s, many PCB-impacted materials were authorized to remain in use and still remain in use today. These materials are at or near the end of their useful lives and may pose a significant hazard to human health and the environment. In addition to health concerns, the U.S. EPA is currently reassessing these use authorizations and all indications point towards a PCB phase-out that could begin as early as late 2017. To keep your employees safe and your facility compliant with the regulations, a PCB remediation contractor may be necessary to assess, manage and/or remove PCBs at your facility. If you are unsure whether or not PCB contamination exists at your facility, read through the following questions. If you answer “yes” to any of them, you may want to think about hiring a PCB remediation contractor.
- Was your industrial or commercial facility built or renovated between 1950 and 1979?
- Are you planning a building renovation or demolition in the future?
- Do your walls, windows or doorways contain older paint, caulking or grout that is peeling or cracking?
- Have contaminants ever been detected by a remediation contractor in you facility in the past?
- Has a remediation contractor performed remedial actions on your facility in the past?
- Has your facility ever used hydraulic or heat transfer equipment?
- Has your facility ever used electrical equipment (such as transformers, capacitors or fluorescent light ballasts) that was made before 1980?
- Has your building or property ever been used for natural gas transmission or distribution?
- Has your building or property ever been used for electric power generation or distribution?
- Has your building or property ever been used to manufacture, distribute or dispose of electrical equipment or electrical appliances?
- Has your building or property ever been used to manufacture, distribute or dispose of paint, sealants, coatings, adhesives, caulk or grout?
- Has your building or property ever been used to manufacture, distribute or dispose of building materials, such as insulation, ceiling tiles, HVAC equipment, roofing materials or siding materials?
SOURCES OF PCBs
Where Can I Find PCBs?
PCBs were widely used for industrial, electrical and construction applications prior to the ban in 1979. Due to the material itself or a cross-contamination into some other media, areas most likely to be impacted by PCBs include painted surfaces, porous surfaces (such as cement), window and door frames, HVAC systems, masonry joints, expansion joints, roofs, ceilings and underlying soil.
List of Common PCB-Containing Materials
- Insulation Materials
- Ceiling Tiles
- Roofing Materials
- HVAC Equipment
- Roofing and Siding Materials
- Hydraulic Fluids
- Inks and Dyes
- Carbonless Copy Paper
- Electrical Equipment
- Transformers & Capacitors
- Heat Transfer Equipment
- Electrical Light Ballasts
- Small Capacitors in Electric Motors
- Lubricating and Cutting Oils
- Components in Electric Cable
What are Some PCB Trade Names?
PCBs were manufactured and sold under many different names. Aroclor is the most commonly known for PCB mixtures. The names listed below have been used to refer to PCBs or to products containing PCBs.
PCB Trade Names (A - B)
- Biphenyl, chlorinated
PCB Trade Names (C - D)
- Chlorinated biphenyl
- Chlorinated diphenyl
- Diphenyl, chlorinated
PCB Trade Names (E - M)
- MCS 1489
PCB Trade Names (N - P)
- Polychlorinated biphenyl
- Polychlorinated biphenyls
- Polychlorinated diphenyl
- Polychlorinated diphenyls
PCB Trade Names (Q - Z)
PCB WASTE MANAGEMENT
How is PCB Waste Managed?
PCB waste is broken down into one of two categories:
- PCB bulk product waste is waste derived from products manufactured to contain PCBs in a non-liquid state with a concentration of 50 parts-per-million (ppm) or greater. Typical examples are caulk, paint, and sealants; and,
- PCB remediation waste is waste containing PCBs as a result of a spill or release (date and concentration limits apply), e.g., PCB-contaminated soil, sediments, and concrete.
How is PCB Remediation Waste Managed?
PCB remediation waste is managed through one of three (3) options:
1.) Self-Implementing Cleanup and Disposal (40 CFR section 761.61(a)):
The self-implementing option links cleanup levels with the expected occupancy rates of the area or building where the contaminated materials are present. Along with some other factors, the disposal requirements for the self-implementing regulatory option vary based on the type of contaminated material and concentration of PCBs in the materials. You must notify the U.S. EPA if you intend to utilize the self-implementing option.
2.) Performance-Based Disposal (40 CFR section 761.61(b)):
Through the performance-based option, facilities:
- Dispose of contaminated non-liquid materials in a Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) chemical waste landfill;
- Dispose of contaminated non-liquid materials in a TSCA incinerator;
- Dispose of contaminated non-liquid materials in a TSCA-approved alternate disposal method;
- Decontaminate non-liquid contaminated material under TSCA-regulated decontamination procedures; or/and,
- Dispose of non-liquid contaminated materials in a facility with a coordinated approval issued under TSCA.
Note: U.S. EPA notification and approval is not required under this option,
3.) Risk-Based Cleanup and Disposal (40 CFR section 761.61(c)):
The risk-based option allows for a site-specific approval to sample, cleanup or dispose of PCB remediation waste in a manner other than the self-implementing or the performance-based disposal options. This option requires you to obtain an approval from U.S. EPA based on a finding that the proposal will not present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.