What Standards and Regulations Exist for PCB Exposure?

Learning Objective

Upon completion of this section, you will be able to

  • Describe EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PCBs in drinking water.
  • Describe FDA’s tolerance levels for PCBs in food.

The U.S. government has developed standards and regulations for PCBs that are designed to protect the public and workers from potential adverse health effects.

Workplace Standards


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) is a time-weighted average (TWA) airborne concentration of 1.0 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) for PCBs containing 42% chlorine (average molecular formula of C12H7Cl3). The PEL for PCBs with 54% chlorine and an average molecular formula of C12H5Cl5 is 0.5 mg/m3 (OSHA 1998a).

Both standards encompass all physical forms of these compounds:

  • Aerosols,
  • Vapor,
  • Mist,
  • Sprays, and
  • PCB-laden dust particles.

OSHA recognizes that PCBs can be absorbed through intact skin; therefore, both dermal and inhalation exposure routes should be evaluated by an industrial hygienist.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)FDA recommends a 10-hour TWA of 1.0 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) based on the minimum reliable detectable concentration and the potential carcinogenicity of PCBs [NIOSH 2005].

NIOSH also recommends that all workplace exposures be reduced to the lowest feasible level.

Environmental Standards

Drinking Water

EPA considers PCBs a probable human carcinogen and prohibits industrial discharges under the Clean Water Act Effluent Guidelines.

EPA’s goal for drinking water’s maximum contaminant level is zero, and the enforceable MCL for PCBs in public water systems is 0.0005ppm [EPA 2001].EPA requires that PCB spills or accidental releases into the environment of 1 pound or more be reported to EPA [ATSDR 2000].


FDA mandates tolerances of 0.2-3.0 ppm PCBs for all foods, with a tolerance level in fish of 2 ppm. FDA also limits PCBs in paper food-packaging materials to 10 ppm [FDA 1996c].

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) allow a daily PCB intake of 6 µg/kg per day [AAP 2003].

Table 1. Standards, regulations, and recommendations for PCBs

table 1
Agency Focus Level Comments
1.0 mg/m3 for PCBs with 42% Cl

0.5 mg/m3 for PCBs with 54% Cl

Enforceable; TWA*, PELa

Both standards encompass all physical forms of aerosols, vapor, mist, sprays, and PCB-laden dust particles.

1.0 µg/m3 Advisory; TWA
EPA Drinking water:
0.0005 ppm Enforceable MCLb
FDA Food:
0.2-3.0 ppm (all foods)

2.0 ppm (fish)

10 ppm (paper food-packaging materials)

Enforceable; Tolerance level
6.0 µg/kg per day Allowable daily intake


*TWA (time-weighted average): TWA concentration for a normal workday and a 40-hour workweek to which nearly all workers may be repeatedly exposed

a PEL (permissible exposure limit): highest level of PCBs in air to which a worker may be exposed, averaged over an 8-hour workday

b MCL (maximum contaminant level): enforceable level for drinking water

µg/kg: microgram per kilogram

µg/m3: microgram per cubic meter

ppm: parts per million

Key Points
  • OSHA’s PEL is 1,000 µg/m3 for PCB mixtures 42% chlorinated and 500 µg/m3 for compounds 54% chlorinated.
  • EPA’s enforceable MCL for PCBs in public drinking-water systems is 0.0005 ppm.
  • FDA’s tolerance levels for PCBs in food range between 0.2 and 3 ppm.