Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are among a group of man-made chemicals that are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). PCBs were commercially produced world-wide on a large scale between the 1930s and 1980s. Given their extraordinary chemical stability and heat resistance, they were extensively employed as components in electrical and hydraulic equipment and lubricants.
They have been used in two types of applications:
Closed uses: dielectric fluids in electrical equipment such as transformers, capacitors (big industrial capacitors, but also small capacitors in household electrical appliances), heat transfer and hydraulic systems.
Open uses: as pesticide extenders, sealant, carbonless copy paper, industrial oils, paints, adhesives, plastics, flame retardants and to control dust on roads.
In the 1970s, owing to severe concerns pertaining to their human toxicity, suspected carcinogenicity, and environmental persistence, several countries limited the use of PCBs. Finally in 1985, the use and marketing of PCBs in the European Community were very heavily restricted.
PCBs are classified as probable human carcinogens and produce a wide spectrum of adverse effects in animals and humans, including reproductive toxicity, teratogenicity and immunotoxicity.
They can be transported long distances and have been detected in the furthest corners of the globe, including places far from where they were manufactured or used. They have been detected in virtually all environmental media (indoor and outdoor, surface and ground water, soil and food).
Directive 96/59/EC on the disposal of PCBs and PCTs aims at disposing completely of PCBs and equipment containing PCBs as soon as possible. This Directive sets the requirements for an environmentally sound disposal of PCBs. Member States have to make an inventory of big equipment containing PCBs, have to adopt a plan for disposal of inventoried equipment, and outlines for collection and disposal of non inventoried equipment (small electrical equipment very often present in household appliances manufactured before the ban on marketing of PCBs). The PCB Directive further mandates that Member States had to dispose of big equipment (equipment with PCB volumes of more than 5 litres) by the end of 2010 at the latest. The Commission will verify the implementation of this provision.
Furthermore, the Commission has adopted a Community Strategy on Dioxins, Furans and PCBs aimed at reducing as far as possible the release of these substances in the environment and their introduction in the food chains.
In addition, Regulation (EC) No 850/2004 on persistent organic pollutants covers PCB. The Commission has carried out a study to facilitate the implementation of the waste related provisions of this Regulation.