Environmental occurrence, abundance, and potential toxicity of polychlorinated biphenyl congeners: considerations for a congener-specific analysis

Environ Health Perspect. 1989 May;81:225-39. doi: 10.1289/ehp.8981225.


Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as environmental contaminants often cannot be adequately described by reference to Aroclors or to total PCBs. Although there are 209 possible PCB configurations (congeners), perhaps half that number account for nearly all of the environmental contamination attributable to PCBs. Still fewer congeners are both prevalent and either demonstrably or potentially toxic. If potential toxicity, environmental prevalence, and relative abundance in animal tissues are used as criteria, the number of environmentally threatening PCB congeners reduces to about thirty-six. Twenty-five of these account for 50 to 75% of total PCBs in tissue samples of fish, invertebrates, birds, and mammals. A few PCB congeners that are sterically similar to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8-TCDD) are directly toxic. Other PCB congeners, as well as those that are directly toxic, may also be involved in toxicity indirectly by stimulating the production of (inducing) bioactivating enzyme systems. The most consequential of these have the ability to induce aryl hydrocarbon metabolizing mixed-function oxidases (MFOs). A result can be an increased capacity for bioactivation of otherwise nontoxic foreign compounds such as certain polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) to cytotoxic or genotoxic metabolites. The effectiveness of specific PCB congeners as inducers of different types of cytochrome P-450-dependent MFO systems is determined by their stereochemistry. Although MFO induction is not a proximate cause, it is a strong correlate of certain kinds of toxicities. Structural patterns can thus be used to discriminate among PCB congeners on the basis of toxic potential, if not entirely on toxicity per se. Congeners that demonstrate 3-methylcholanthrene-type (3-MC-type) and mixed-type MFO induction have the greatest toxic potential. These congeners most closely resemble 2,3,7,8-TCDD in their structures and in their toxic effects. The larger group of phenobarbital-type (PB-type) inducers have considerably less potential for contributing to toxic effects. Weak inducers and noninducing congeners have the least potential for toxicity. Using the rationale described in this paper, we assigned the most evironmentally threatening PCB congeners to four groups. Congeners assigned to Group 1 are considered most likely to contribute to adverse biological effects attributable to PCBs in an environmental sample. Group 1A contains the three most potent (pure 3-MC-type inducer) congeners, IUPAC numbers 77, 126, and 169. Six congeners, numbers 105, 118, 128, 138, 156, and 170, are assigned to Group 1B. These congeners are mixed-type inducers that have been reported frequently in environmental samples.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis*
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity
  • Enzyme Induction
  • Mixed Function Oxygenases / biosynthesis
  • Models, Molecular
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / analysis*
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / toxicity
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls
  • Mixed Function Oxygenases