United States Bans PCBs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. government banned the manufacture, use, and dumping of the chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which had been shown to have harmful effects on humans and other living things.

Summary of Event

On September 28, 1976, the U.S. Congress gave final approval to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The House and the Senate passed the act by votes of 360 to 35 and 73 to 6, respectively. The TSCA required industry to test potentially dangerous chemicals before releasing them. Manufacturers were to give the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ninety-day notice before manufacture of any new chemical product. Likewise, new uses for existing products were to be reported. Upon such notice, the EPA could require additional testing, restrict use, or totally ban the proposed use. Any EPA action could be appealed in court. Most important, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were the only chemicals specifically mentioned in the legislation. PCB manufacture for all but closed systems was to end in one year, with all manufacture ceasing in two years. Sale and distribution were to be phased out in two and one-half years. President Gerald R. Ford signed the bill into law on October 12, 1976. Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) PCBs Polychlorinated biphenyls [kw]United States Bans PCBs (Oct. 12, 1976) [kw]Bans PCBs, United States (Oct. 12, 1976) [kw]PCBs, United States Bans (Oct. 12, 1976) Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) PCBs Polychlorinated biphenyls [g]North America;Oct. 12, 1976: United States Bans PCBs[02550] [g]United States;Oct. 12, 1976: United States Bans PCBs[02550] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 12, 1976: United States Bans PCBs[02550] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 12, 1976: United States Bans PCBs[02550] Jensen, Søren Muskie, Edmund Reid, Ogden R. Rogers, Paul G. Train, Russell E.

PCBs are a family of about two hundred chemicals with the same basic structure. PCBs were first synthesized in the late 1800’s by German scientists, but it was not until 1929 that large-scale PCB production began. PCBs were found to be an ideal dielectric (the nonconducting material separating the two oppositely charged plates) in capacitors. PCBs also made excellent coolants in electrical transformers and were flame resistant. The chemicals proved to have a high stability over time and were used as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, and additives to paint, and were also used to make carbonless copy paper and adhesives. PCBs were also found to make good plasticizers, having properties that make plastics more flexible. The chemicals were not thought to be particularly dangerous, although as early as 1936, factory workers handling PCBs were required to take steps to guard against chloracne, a skin disorder.

In the 1960’s, many people were concerned about the effects of another chlorinated hydrocarbon, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), DDT which was used as an insecticide. In 1964, Søren Jensen of Stockholm University began a study of DDT levels in human and animal fat tissues. Using a gas chromatograph, he noticed the familiar “spikes” in the chromatograph picture caused by the presence of DDT and related products. What puzzled him was the presence of many other unexpected spikes, representing additional unknown chemicals, in the samples.

Eventually, Jensen was able to work with larger amounts of the unknowns in a dead eagle that had been brought to his laboratory. Mass spectrometry revealed that the chemicals differed from each other by thirty-four atomic mass units. Chlorine weighs thirty-five and hydrogen weighs one on the atomic scale; if a chlorine replaced a hydrogen, a chemical’s atomic weight would change by thirty-four. Jensen zeroed in on polychlorinated biphenyls. When he tried chromatograms of PCB samples, they matched his unknowns. Jensen had discovered that PCBs, like DDT, were widespread contaminants of wildlife that were concentrating as they moved up the food chain. Where these PCBs came from remained a mystery; no one was spraying PCBs.

Then in October, 1968, an epidemic of skin disease similar to chloracne broke out in Japan. Symptoms included acnelike eruptions, excessive pigmentation, eye discharges, swollen eyelids, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and visual disturbance. Investigators from the University of Kyushu quickly found that cooking oil had been contaminated with PCBs from a heating system at a production plant in Kitakyushu City. By 1971, there were 1,057 cases of what became known as Yusho (“oil disease”). Pregnant women with Yusho had a high rate of stillbirths, and infected mothers often passed the disease to their infants through their breast milk.

In the 1970’s, animal studies done by Dr. Renate Kimbrough Kimbrough, Renate at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that PCBs caused liver cancer. Dr. James R. Allen Allen, James R. of the University of Wisconsin demonstrated PCB-related reproductive problems and miscarriages in monkeys. Offspring were getting PCBs through their mother’s milk. Monsanto Chemical, Monsanto Chemical Company the only American producer of PCBs, voluntarily agreed in 1971 to sell PCBs only for systems from which escape into the environment was less likely.

Congressman Paul G. Rogers, chair of the Health Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, opened hearings on March 27, 1974. Rogers angrily pointed out that Richard M. Nixon’s presidential administration was holding the EPA back. In November, the EPA hosted a conference on PCBs in Chicago. EPA chemist Thomas E. Knopp Knopp, Thomas E. reported that vaporization, leaks, and spills were putting ten million pounds of PCBs into the environment each year. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Nathaniel Reed said that at least ten plants were dumping PCBs directly in waterways around the country.

On December 22, 1975, Russell E. Train, head of the EPA, called on industry to find substitutes for PCBs. Announcing that the chemicals were suspected carcinogens, he warned that the EPA planned to halt their production.

The case that sealed the fate of PCBs then became national news. In the early 1970’s, two General Electric (GE) Company General Electric Company capacitor plants dumped approximately 440,000 pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. Most of the waste was from daily leakage and spills into factory wastewater. Dr. Art Stone Stone, Art of New York’s Wildlife Research Lab began notifying superiors of PCBs in fish in 1970. In 1971, Robert Boyle Boyle, Robert of Sports Illustrated wrote to the state about the Hudson’s striped-bass eggs; tests showed the eggs contained high levels of PCBs. These voices went unheard. In late 1974, the EPA issued GE a permit to dump thirty pounds each day, with a gradual reduction by 1977 to a maximum of 3.5 ounces. When Alan W. Eckert Eckert, Alan W. of the EPA learned of GE’s routine dumping, he urged the state to get some data. Subsequent studies by late 1974 showed increasingly high PCB levels in minnows and rock bass.

In 1975, New York’s newly appointed state environmental commissioner, Ogden R. Reid, unaware of his own state’s studies, was given a national fish survey by the EPA. Astonished, on August 7, he issued an advisory that New Yorkers should not eat striped or largemouth bass. Reid recognized that the problem had been ignored, and on September 7, he ordered GE to end all PCB discharges by September 30, 1976. Reid also warned GE to contain the PCB residues on the plant grounds. To underline the problem, Reid blacklisted more fish.

GE threatened to close the plants and to put twelve hundred people out of work. A hearing was called that brought national attention to PCBs. On February 17, 1976, Reid banned most forms of commercial fishing on the Hudson. Shortly after, he banned all fishing on one forty-mile section. Under increasing pressure from the governor, who wanted to protect industry, Reid resigned. Eventually, GE agreed to pay $4 million toward cleanup of the Hudson River and found a substitute for PCBs.

In the wake of the Hudson River dumpings and a poisoning of workers in a plant in Virginia, Russell Train addressed the National Press Club in early 1976, calling for action. The election of a Democratic Congress in January, 1975, made passage of the legislation banning PCBs inevitable.


By and large, legislation regarding public health had been left to the various states. In the late 1960’s, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that pollution could easily cross state lines, and corporations could also put much pressure on individual states. In 1964, Congress passed a law concerning interstate air pollution. In 1968, the federal government assumed a role in regulating water pollution. All these developments occurred in the context of increasing public concern, illustrated by the first Earth Day Earth Day in 1970. Responding to this, and stung by Ralph Nader’s Nader, Ralph book Vanishing Air Vanishing Air (Nader) (1970), Senators Edmund Muskie of Maine and John Sherman Cooper Cooper, John Sherman of Kentucky proposed the Clean Air Act of 1970. Clean Air Act Amendments (1970) In 1972, Muskie pushed through a water-pollution bill, and in 1973, Congressman Paul Rogers saw the passage of his bill to empower the EPA to guard the quality of the nation’s water supplies. This legislation, however, was limited to point sources such as smokestacks, tailpipes, and drainpipes. PCBs, on the other hand, were being spilled in production lines and were leaking from finished products. They were even becoming airborne.

Jensen’s discovery was a watershed in the understanding of the danger posed by toxic organic chemicals. As Barry Commoner pointed out in his landmark book The Closing Circle Closing Circle, The (Commoner) (1971), “everything must go somewhere.” Spillage and vaporization into the environment made PCBs ubiquitous. PCBs store in the fat of animals and move up the food chain, becoming increasingly concentrated at higher levels of the food chain. Many scientists fear that the effects have only begun to be realized.

The dangers of PCBs continue to be debated in the twenty-first century. Some scientists wonder if PCBs are blamed for problems caused by other contaminants. This raises the question of how to affix blame when an organism is confronted with low levels of many potentially toxic chemicals. Others reject that thinking. Biologist James Ludwig Ludwig, James stated that DDT levels once interfered with the hatching of bird eggs in the Great Lakes. These levels have fallen, but hatchability has not returned accordingly. Ludwig has asserted that PCBs and dioxins are the problem. When more than seven hundred dead and dying bottlenose dolphins washed up on the Atlantic coast of the United States during the winter of 1987-1988, biologists blamed a neurotoxin produced by the Florida red tide organism. The EPA, however, found high levels of PCBs and other chemicals in the dolphins. It has been hypothesized that PCBs may be able to suppress immune systems and contribute to illness and death.

Even though they are no longer made, sold, or used in production, PCBs continue to be a problem because of the stability of the amounts that have already been released. An estimated 750 million pounds of PCBs are still in use in the United States. In 1979, the EPA’s regulatory program went into effect. Institutions that still operate transformers and equipment containing PCBs need to have a program to ensure compliance with extensive EPA and state regulations. The equipment must be registered with the local fire department, visual inspection for leakage is required at least once every three months, and maintenance records must be kept. If a leak occurs, immediate action must be taken, and cleanup must begin within forty-eight hours of discovery. Leaks to the environment must be reported. The EPA can fine owners based on the seriousness of the violation, the institution’s ability to pay, the effect on the institution’s ability to operate, any history of previous problems, and the degree of accountability.

Researchers at GE have performed studies that show that PCBs degrade by natural bacterial action. As was found in studies of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there may be means by which to encourage these bacteria by supplying them with nutrients.

In 1993, the EPA and the U.S. Navy developed and tested an incineration treatment that mixes baking soda with PCB-contaminated soil. The special furnace was built by Battelle’s Pacific Northwest Laboratories and requires temperatures of 350 degrees Celsius. Hydrogen from the baking soda replaces the chlorine in the PCBs. The treatment can also handle dioxins, pesticides, and other organic compounds. An estimated 900 million metric tons of soil in the United States are contaminated.

PCBs are among the most abundant, persistent, and widely dispersed environmental contaminants. From 1945 to 1968, U.S. production of DDT was about 933 million pounds. Nearly all of this was sprayed somewhere in the world. During the years from 1930 to 1970, total production of PCBs was about one billion pounds. Japan, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union also produced PCBs. The amounts that have entered the environment by various means are estimated to approach those of DDT. Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) PCBs Polychlorinated biphenyls

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashworth, William. “Sludge.” In The Late, Great Lakes: An Environmental History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Describes the nature of the bottom of the Great Lakes. PCBs are heavier than water, and the various harbors of many cities on the lakes are heavily contaminated. These lakes furnish drinking water for more than 24 million people. A good reference for people interested in the largest U.S. waterway.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Detjen, Jim. “PCBs in the Hudson River.” In Who’s Poisoning America, edited by Ralph Nader, Ronald Brownstein, and John Richard. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1981. Gives extensive detail on the dumping of PCBs into the Hudson River by General Electric. The viewpoint is proenvironment, with little sympathy for those who did not recognize the hazards of PCBs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Samuel S., Lester O. Brown, and Carl Pope. Hazardous Waste in America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1982. Surveys the sources of pollution and proposes action and solutions. Of special interest is the chapter on the history of legislation of hazardous wastes, which shows how the government and society were divided on the issues of the federal role and the scope of control needed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forrestal, Dan J. Faith, Hope, and Five Thousand Dollars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. The story of the Monsanto Company told by a sympathetic writer. The effort to deal with rising environmental concerns during the 1960’s is revealing. Forrestal reveals that Monsanto knew of Søren Jensen’s work, and PCBs clearly represented Monsanto’s darkest hour. The book gives insight into how businesses were perplexed by environmental concerns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Love, Dennis. My City Was Gone: One American Town’s Toxic Secret, Its Angry Band of Locals, and a $700 Million Day in Court. New York: William Morrow, 2006. The author, who grew up in Anniston, Alabama, home of the Monsanto chemical plant, tells the story of the devastating health consequences resulting from dangerous chemicals that were dumped on local land and into waterways. Explores the legal battles that followed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shea, Kevin P. “PCB: The Worldwide Pollutant Threat Nobody Noticed.” Environment 15 (November, 1973): 25-28. Shows what was known about PCBs before they were banned.

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Is Signed

U.S. Congress Expands Pesticide Regulations

U.S. Government Bans DDT

Italian Factory Explosion Releases Dioxin

EPA Is Charged with Regulating Toxic Chemicals

“Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes

Chlorofluorocarbons Are Banned in the United States

Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal

Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup

Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded

Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach

Categories: History