ToxFAQs™ for Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs)
Spanish: Bifenilos Polibromados
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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about PBBs. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) are chemicals produced by human activity and are found in plastics used in many consumer products to make them difficult to burn. PBBs are no longer produced but can still be found in the environment. Some people who ate food contaminated with PBBs in the 1970s had skin problems. PBBs have been found in at least 9 of the 1,647 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What are PBBs?
Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) are manufactured
chemicals. They are added to the plastics used to make products
like computer monitors, televisions, textiles, plastic foams,
etc. to make them difficult to burn. PBBs can leave these
plastics and find their way into the environment. PBBs are
usually colorless to off-white solids. PBBs are mixtures of
brominated biphenyl compounds known as congeners.
In the United States, manufacturing of PBBs was stopped in 1976. PBBs are still around in the environment because they do not degrade easily or quickly.
What happens to PBBs when they enter the environment?
- PBBs entered the air, water and soil during their manufacture and use before 1976.
- PBBs enter the environment from poorly maintained hazardous waste sites and from the improper incineration of plastics containing PBBs.
- PBBs are stable in the environment, and can accumulate up the food chain.
How might I be exposed to PBBs?
- Exposure to PBBs is most likely to occur by ingesting contaminated foods and drinks.
- People living in the lower peninsula of Michigan, where animal feed was accidentally contaminated with PBBs in 1973, may still be exposed by eating contaminated fish, dairy products, and meat.
- If you don't live in Michigan, exposure to PBBs is likely to be very low.
- You can be exposed to PBBs in the air if you live near a waste site that contains PBBs.
How can PBBs affect my health?
Most of what we know about the health
effects of PBBs in people comes from studies of people in
Michigan who ate PBB-contaminated animal products for several
months. Some residents complained of nausea, abdominal pain,
loss of appetite, joint pain, fatigue, and weakness. However,
it could not be clearly established that PBBs were the cause
of these health problems.
There is stronger evidence that PBBs
may have caused skin problems, such as acne, in some people
who ate contaminated food. Some workers exposed to PBBs by
breathing and skin contact for days to months also developed
Studies in animals exposed to large amounts
of PBBs for a short time or to smaller amounts for longer
time show that PBBs can cause weight loss, skin disorders,
nervous and immune systems effects, and effects on the liver,
kidneys, and thyroid gland.
How likely are PBBs to cause cancer?
We do not know whether PBBs can cause
cancer in humans, but we know that they can cause liver cancer
in rats and mice exposed to very high concentrations of PBBs.
Based on the findings in animals, the Department of Health
and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that PBBs may reasonably
be anticipated to be carcinogens. The International Agency
for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that PBBs are
possibly carcinogenic to humans.
How can PBBs affect children?
Children are exposed to PBBs in the same
way as adults, mainly by eating contaminated food. PBBs dissolve
and accumulate in fat, so PBBs can be found in the breast
milk of exposed mothers and be transferred to babies and young
children. PBBs also cross the placenta and reach the fetus
before babies are born.
Behavioral changes are seen in animals
that were exposed to high levels of PBBs in the womb and by
nursing. Such exposures also caused changes in thyroid hormone
levels in the newborn animals and birth defects.
No specific health effects attributed
to PBBs were found in children who ate contaminated food in
the Michigan accident or in children born to mothers who ate
the contaminated food.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to PBBs?
- Since PBBs are no longer produced or used, the risk of exposure to these compounds is low.
- Do not eat fish or wildlife caught in contaminated locations; always follow posted health warnings.
- Discourage children from playing in the dirt near waste sites, from eating dirt, and from putting their hands in their mouths. Follow good hand washing rules.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to PBBs?
There are tests that can detect PBBs
in blood, body fat, and breast milk. These tests can tell
whether you have been exposed to high levels of the chemicals,
but cannot tell the exact amount or type of PBBs you were
exposed to, or whether harmful effects will occur. Blood tests
are the easiest and safest way for detecting recent exposures
to large amounts of PBBs. These tests are not routinely available
at the doctor's office, but samples can be sent to laboratories
that have the proper equipment.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
At present, there are no current guidelines or recommendations for protecting human health from exposure to PBBs.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2004. Toxicological Profile for Polybrominated Biphenyls and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers.
Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Office of Innovation and Analytics, Toxicology Section
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.