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Definition of PCB:
Polychrorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is a large group of toxic synthetic lipid-soluble chlorinated hydrocarbons, which are used in various industrial processes and which have become persistent and ubiquitous environmental contaminants which can be concentrated in food chains[1].
This is the common definition for PCB, other definitions can be discussed in the article


On each number may by a chlorine atom present.

This gives 209 different combinations

Between the time of initial (1929) and final production (1977) the USA produced an estimated 0,54 billion kg of PCBs. They were widely used in transformers and capacitors, lubricants, fire retardants, plastics and other materials. PCBs can enter the marine environment by adsorption to particles and atmospheric transport[2].

They have been contaminants in the marine environment for more than 60 years. In this time they have become universally distributed in marine and estuarine environments. They occur in nearly all marine algae and animal species. Like other organochlorine compounds they are a hazard to marine ecosystems because of their extreme stability, low biodegradability and lipid solubility, which causes them to bioaccumulate. Concentrations of PCBs in surface waters vary between 0,035 n/l (in open ocean), to 10 ng/l in highly polluted coastal waters. However, decreasing trends are being observed since concentrations peaked in the 1970s[3].

PCBs tend to act as endocrine disrupting compounds, which disrupt the hormone balance of animals. This might cause immunodeficiency and or reproductive problems (which have been demonstrated in marine mammals). These effects are suspected to occur at much lower concentrations than those which cause acute toxicity[4]. PCBs have been shown to cause chronic diseases in humans (such as skin lesions, reproductive disorders and liver damage) and are suspected to be carcinogenic. Concentrations which (in laboratory conditions) cause lethal effects in fish range from 10 to 300ppm (parts per million in the animal tissue). The concentrations measured during the 1970s in wild fishes and seals varied between 0,03 and 212 ppm[3].

There are 209 different forms of PCBs. Therefore, to asses the risk of PCB exposure, the sum of all these forms needs to be taken into account[3].

Case studies

Effects of xenoestrogens in eels

Levels of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides in various benthic species in the Belgian North sea and the Western Scheldt estuary

Organochlorines in particles and zooplankton from the Belgian part of the North Sea and the Scheldt estuary

PCB and heavy metals in beached sperm whales

PCBs and organochlorine pesticides in Antarctic algae

PCBs and organochlorine pesticides in shrimp from the Belgian North Sea

Organochlorine pesticides in Harbour porpoises

The relation between pollutants and disease in guillemots

Environmental standards and legislation

Included in the OSPAR list of substances of priority action

See also

PCB on the ED North Database

OSPAR background document on PCB


  1. Lawrence E (ed.), 2000. Henderson’s Dictionary of Biological Terms. 12th edition. Prentice Hall, Pearson Education Limited. Harlow, Great Britain.
  2. Clark, R,B., 1999. Marine pollution. Oxford University press, Fourth edition, pp 161
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Kennish, M. J. (1996): Practical Handbook of Estuarine and Marine Pollution, CRC Press 524 pp
  4. OSPAR Commission 2000. Quality Status Report 2000, OSPAR Commission, London
The main author of this article is Daphnis De Pooter
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Daphnis De Pooter (2020): PCB. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/PCB [accessed on 20-07-2024]