Polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, and polychlorinated dibenzofurans as endocrine disrupters--what we have learned from Yusho disease

Environ Res. 2001 May;86(1):2-11. doi: 10.1006/enrs.2001.4244.


Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) are persistent environmental pollutants. In some areas wildlife reproduction has been affected by these compounds, which are recognized as endocrine disrupters. In 1968 in northern Kyushu in Japan about 2000 people were poisoned by PCBs and PCDFs (pyrolysis products of PCBs) which contaminated rice oil. Their condition was named "Yusho" disease. A similar poisoning by PCBs in Taiwan was named "Yu-Cheng" disease. The major symptoms of Yusho disease were dermal and ocular lesions, but some of the symptoms, such as irregular menstrual cycles and altered immune responses, were notable with respect to the endocrine disrupting activities of PCBs and related compounds. Several important observations relevant to the mechanisms of Yusho have been made from animal studies. For example, a coplanar PCB congener was shown to cause atrophy of the thymus and PCB administration was thought to alter androgen metabolism. The most tragic aspect of Yusho and Yu-Cheng diseases was the exposure of children to PCBs. In the case of Yu-Cheng, children exposed to PCBs in utero and lactationally were reported to have poor cognitive development. Intellectual impairment was also observed in children born to women who had eaten fish contaminated with PCBs in the United States. From animal studies, alterations in thyroid hormone status, modulation of protein kinase C, and changes in dopamine levels, etc. were proposed as the possible mechanisms for the adverse effects of PCBs on brain development. Whereas coplanar PCB and related congeners, e.g., 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, induce gene expression via a ligand-dependent transactivating factor, the arylhydrocarbon receptor, alternative pathways for gene expression, e.g., c-Src and cross talk with the MAP kinase pathway, are also reviewed with respect to understanding the toxic mechanisms of these compounds. Finally, the "precautionary principle" is discussed for prevention of the health hazards caused by exposure to endocrine disrupters.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Benzofurans / poisoning
  • Dibenzofurans, Polychlorinated
  • Endocrine System / drug effects*
  • Environmental Exposure / prevention & control*
  • Environmental Pollutants / poisoning*
  • Food Contamination*
  • Humans
  • Japan
  • Oryza / poisoning
  • Plant Oils / poisoning
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / poisoning
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins / analogs & derivatives*
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins / poisoning


  • Benzofurans
  • Dibenzofurans, Polychlorinated
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Plant Oils
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls