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What to Know About PCB Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 06, 2022

If you served in the military before the 1970s or worked with PCB electrical devices or around Agent Orange, you might have been exposed to dioxin-like PCBs. PCB exposure in veterans is a common cause of war-related illness. 

What Are PCBs?

PCB stands for polychlorinated biphenyls. These are man-made organic chemicals that belong to a group of chemicals called chlorinated hydrocarbons. They have no smell or taste, and their chemical properties change depending on the number of chlorine atoms and where they are in the PCB molecule. Some are more toxic than others. 

Some PCBs are dioxin-like compounds, which means they have a similar structure to and toxicity to dioxin chemicals. The difference is that dioxins aren’t man-made but are a byproduct of commercial processing and some natural events like volcano eruptions and forest fires. 

In the United States, lots of industries used PCBs because they’re stable, non-flammable, have a high boiling point, and insulate electricity. In 1977, however, the government banned PCB production.

No one in the US makes PCBs anymore, but these chemicals never go away. They are called forever chemicals or persistent organic pollutants, and they’re widespread in the environment. 

What Are PCBs Used For?

PCBs were originally used for lots of commercial and industrial products and activities, including:

  • Hydraulic and motor oil
  • Transformers, conduits, and capacitors
  • Electrical equipment, like switches, voltage regulators, and electromagnets
  • Oil-based paint
  • Caulking
  • Glues and tape
  • Carbonless copy paper
  • Insulating materials, like fiberglass, foam, and felt
  • Plastics
  • Cable insulators
  • Floor finish
  • Fluorescent light fixtures

PCB Exposure in Veterans

Most PCB exposure comes from the environment or your workplace. One of the major sources of PCB exposure for most people is food. PCBs are in the environment and buildup in contaminated animal tissues. High-fat foods are more likely to be contaminated with PCB, including dairy, animal fats, eggs, fish, and wildlife. 

Veterans have also been exposed to PCBs. If you served in the military before 1977, you might have been exposed to PCB at your job. Common PCB exposure sources included:

  • Working on transformers, conduits, and capacitors
  • Working on or with oil-based paint, caulking, glues, and tape
  • Handling carbonless copy pair
  • Working around PCB hydraulic or motor oil

Another major source of dioxin-like PCBs in veterans is Agent Orange. Agent Orange is a variety of herbicide chemicals used in the Vietnam war to clear trees and plants and prevent foreign troop movement. These chemicals are toxic and cause at least 17 known diseases, including cancer. 

While the most damaging Agent Orange chemical is a dioxin called TCDD, dioxin-like PCBs are also culprits.   

If you served in the Vietnam war between November 1, 1965, and April 30, 1975, and were around or handled Agent Orange, you probably have both PCB exposure and Agent Orange exposure. 

What Are Polychlorinated Biphenyls Health Effects?

PCBs don’t break down in the environment, and they don’t break down very well in your body, either. Instead, they collect in your tissues, especially in your liver, skin, fat, and breast milk. Depending on the structure, experts think PCBs can last in the body anywhere from 6 months to 20 years or longer. You can get rid of lower-risk PCBs through your urine and feces, but it takes a long time. 

As PCBs build up, they affect your body and can cause different health problems, including:

Animal studies also show that PCBs might cause cancer, thyroid/endocrine problems, nervous system problems, and immune system effects, though it’s not clear that low exposure to PCBs definitely causes such issues.

Agent Orange in particular is linked to lots of cancers and other conditions. These include:

PCBs and Agent Orange can also harm unborn babies. It can affect a growing nervous system, leading to intellectual and growth delays. Studies show that babies exposed to PCBs have trouble gaining weight and trouble reading and paying attention as they get older. 

What Are the PCB Exposure Symptoms?

PCBs collect in your body over time, so you won’t always have symptoms right away. Eventually, you might notice changes to your skin and lungs, along with other problems. These symptoms include:

  • Cystic, skin-colored pimples that don’t respond to treatment and last for months or years
  • Acne on your back, arms, legs, trunk, face, and neck
  • Patches of darkened skin
  • Darkened nails
  • Raised liver enzyme levels

If PCBs cause liver damage, you might experience symptoms like:

If you have acute, serious exposure to PCBs, like encountering a toxic spill, you can have symptoms right away. These might include:

  • Sniffling
  • Coughing
  • Eye irritation
  • Throwing up
  • Skin redness
  • Acne or rash

Treatment for PCB Exposure in Veterans

There’s no known way to treat PCB exposure directly. Your doctor will treat the symptoms and other health problems that PCBs cause. Treatments will vary. For chloracne, they’ll recommend good skin hygiene and the treatments for regular acne

Your doctor will also recommend regular monitoring for liver damage. If you have elevated enzymes, you’ll need to avoid some medications and other products that harm your liver, like alcohol and solvents with chlorine.

If you get cancer, treatment will depend on the type, location, and lots of other factors but may include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and other treatments. 

For lung conditions and irritation, treatment might include corticosteroids, bronchodilators, lung rehab, oxygen therapy, and avoiding smoking.  

Outlook

PCB exposure can cause health problems. If you served in the military before 1977 or in the Vietnam war, you might have been exposed to PCBs or Agent Orange. If you think your health problems are a service-related illness, talk to your doctor. You might be eligible for disability benefits offered by Veterans Affairs.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Clinical Assessment,” “Dioxins, Furans and Dioxin-Like Polychlorinated Biphenyls Factsheet,” “How Should Patients Exposed to PCBs Be Treated and Managed?” “What Are Adverse Health Effects of PCB Exposure?” “What Are Routes of Exposure for PCBs?” “What Is the Biological Fate of PCBs in Humans?”

Gundersen Health System: “Diagnosis and treatments for respiratory and lung disorder.”

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Chemical Agents and Related Occupations, “2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, 2,3,4,7,8-pentachlorodibenzofuran, and 3,3’4,4’5-pentachlorobiphenyl,” International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2012.

Mayo Clinic: “Cancer Treatment.”

Mount Sinai: “Medical Treatment for a PCB Exposure Incident.”

National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Porphyria.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Polychlorinated Biphenyls,” “Veterans’ Diseases Associated with Agent Orange,” “Vietnam War Veterans health issues.”

United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Learn about Polychlorinated biphenyls.”

World Health Organization: “Dioxins and their effects on human health.”

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