Science and Law
10th April 2013

The ABCs of PCBs – The Litigation Continues

Many investigations have studied the effects of PCBs on animal and human health. In this post you will learn about PCBs in general, why they were banned in 1979, and some great resources you can access for the latest science related to PCBs.

The ABCs of PCBs – The Litigation Continues

Many investigations have studied the effects of PCBs on animal and human health. In this post you will learn about PCBs in general, why they were banned in 1979, and some great resources you can access for the latest science related to PCBs.

What are PCBs?

The two main sources of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are: commercial production and as a by-product in combustion processes.  In general, PCBs are derived from man-made organic molecules known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, which are chemically made through chlorination of biphenyl. Depending on the level of chlorination, PCBs have a range of very desirable industrial and commercial characteristics including inflammability, chemical stability, high boiling point, and electric conductivity.  Thus, as one might imagine, PCBs have been used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications such as: “electric fluids in transformers and capacitors, as pesticide extenders, adhesives, dedusting agents, cutting oils, flame retardants, heat transfer fluids, hydraulic lubricants, sealants, paints, and in carbonless copy paper” (PCBs: Uses and Environmental Releases). Due to this demand, PCB production plants exist(ed) in several countries with unique trade names. For example, the most common trade name in the U.S. was Aroclor (i.e. Monsanto Company). Additional, reliable information on PCBs can be accessed by visiting the following resources: EPA, NTP and ATSDR.

Image courtesy of Keerati / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The 1979 Ban on PCB

PCBs were domestically manufactured from 1929 until their ban in 1979 which resulted in their direct or indirect release into the environment.  Although PCBs are no longer commercially produced in the U.S., they are likely present in products and materials produced before the ban, and the EPA provides a list of some of these products.  Furthermore, the EPA notes that: “Today PCBs can still be released into the environment from poorly maintained hazardous waste sites that contain PCBs; illegal or improper dumping of PCB wastes; leaks or releases from electrical transformers containing PCBs; and disposal of PCB-containing consumer products into municipal or other landfills not designed to handle hazardous waste.” And with respect to regulation, PCBs are regulated under Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Why the concern and ban? PCBs have been linked to a variety of health effects in animals, as well as in some specific human populations (like workers exposed to high levels of PCBs), although many of the human epidemiological studies are viewed as inconclusive and suffer from the typical limitations of these study designs. Moreover, one must be cautious when reading some studies. A prime example is a very recent “plaintiff lawyer funded” weight-of-the-evidence (WOE) analysis published in EHP. The authors conclude that their WOE analysis: “supports a causal role of PCBs in lymphomagenesis.” However, the study relies on an ill-defined WOE methodology, as well as a funding source that does not seem completely detached from the results.

Overall, the sentiment that adverse health effects from exposure to PCBs in humans remains of concern is echoed by the IARC, NTP, and NIOSH which all concur that PCBs are “potentially” or “probable” human carcinogens

Hot litigation topic

Because of the historical wide-spread use of PCBs, and the purported adverse health effects, this has been, and continues to be an active area of litigation. For example, a quick search pulled up numerous plaintiff lawyer sites (here, and here, for example) actively seeking PCB exposed persons. Most recently, a lawsuit was filed against Whirlpool Corporation who is facing an environmental class action lawsuit stemming from an old manufacturing site in Ohio that was alleged contaminated with PCBs, and led to the development of certain cancers in nearby residents. Further, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (representing New York Communities for Change) filed a suit against the NYC Department of Education and School Construction Authority under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 2011regarding PCBs (Read more here).

Overall, a careful assessment of the science and specifics of every case is vital to any toxic exposure case. However, assessing exposures accurately and demonstrating causation from alleged exposures remains a daunting task in most circumstances. This is due to lack of scientific data, confounding factors, or poor exposure information.

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