The human health effects of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and PCBS (polychlorinated biphenyls) and an overview of organochlorines in public health

Annu Rev Public Health. 1997;18:211-44. doi: 10.1146/annurev.publhealth.18.1.211.


Organochlorines are a diverse group of persistent synthetic compounds, some of which are detectable in nearly everyone. Many organochlorines are endocrine disruptors or carcinogens in experimental assays. p,p'-DDE (dichlorodiphenyl-dichloroethene) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) comprise the bulk of organochlorine residues in human tissues. We reviewed relevant human data cited in the 1991-1995 Medline database and elsewhere. High-level exposure to selected organochlorines appears to cause abnormalities of liver function, skin (chloracne), and the nervous system. Of more general interest, however, is evidence suggesting insidious effects of background exposure. Of particular concern is the finding of neonatal hypotonia or hyporeflexia in relation to PCB exposure. The epidemiologic data reviewed, considered in isolation, provide no convincing evidence that organochlorines cause a large excess number of cancers. A recent risk assessment that considered animal data, however, gives a cancer risk estimate for background exposure to dioxin and dioxin-like compounds (e.g. some PCBs) with an upper bound in the range of 10(-4) per year.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • DDT / adverse effects*
  • Dioxins / adverse effects
  • Environmental Health*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Insecticides / adverse effects*
  • Morbidity*
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / adverse effects*
  • Public Health*
  • Risk Assessment


  • Dioxins
  • Insecticides
  • DDT
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls