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Environ Health Perspect. 1998 Feb;106 Suppl 1:171-89.

Stepping backward to improve assessment of PCB congener toxicities.

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Department of Veterinary Biosciences, University of Illinois, Urbana 61802, USA.


Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are ubiquitous global contaminants that have been intensively investigated for three decades. They are broad-acting toxicants occurring in complex mixtures and accurate risk assessment has proven to be elusive. Focusing on a limited set of end points and emphasizing a fixed set of congeners have led to more streamlined data sets that are meant to expedite hazard characterization and risk assessment for the most potent congeners--aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) agonists. Unfortunately, this has made it impossible to confirm or deny significant contributions from the more prevalent components of the mixtures. PCBs may be only coincidentally present, rather than causal, in some diseases. Still, attempts to determine associations with incomplete residue data may lead to erroneous conclusions and make accurate risk assessment even more elusive. Responses not mediated through the AhR are presented and emphasize large data gaps. Dissimilar analytical reports emphasize that selection of analytes is not consistent. Collectively, these data confirm that AhR-focused objectives unintentionally created the impression that nonplanar PCBs have little if any potential for hazards to humans and wildlife. Near steady-state exposure of healthy adults are probably of minor consequence except for emerging correlations with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; however, pulses of exposure to more labile mixtures may contribute to developmental effects without leaving a residue record. More broadly based criteria are suggested and harmonization of data collection and presentation are desirable. A more comprehensive list of PCB congeners is proposed that would provide more adequate data upon which to base associations with adverse outcomes.

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