Exposure to and health effects of volatile PCBs

Rev Environ Health. 2015;30(2):81-92. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2014-0074.


Introduction: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent, lipophilic contaminants that are known to increase risk of a number of human diseases. Although ingestion of animal fats is a major route of exposure, there is increasing evidence that inhalation of vapor-phase PCBs is also important and may be as or even more important than ingestion under some circumstances.

Methods: The evidence that inhalation of PCBs may cause cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes is reviewed and presented in this report.

Results: PCBs are known human carcinogens. A husband and wife, occupationally required to 'smell' PCB-containing oils, both developed thyroid cancer, malignant melanoma/severely melanocytic dysplastic nevus (a precursor to malignant melanoma) and the husband, a non-smoker, developed and died of lung cancer. The serum of both had highly elevated concentrations of lower chlorinated, volatile PCB congeners. In other studies, residents living near PCB-containing hazardous waste sites, and thus breathing PCB-contaminated air, have elevated rates of hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and reduced cognitive performance, whereas other studies in defined populations show that there is an elevated risk of all of these diseases in individuals with elevated serum PCBs.

Conclusions: These results are consistent with the conclusion that inhaled PCBs can increase risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and reduce cognitive function.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / chemistry
  • Air Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Molecular Structure
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / chemistry
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / toxicity*
  • Volatile Organic Compounds / chemistry
  • Volatile Organic Compounds / toxicity*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Volatile Organic Compounds
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls