Accidental exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in waste cargo after heavy seas. Global waste transport as a source of PCB exposure

  • Lygia Therese Budnik
  • Ralf Wegner
  • Ulrich Rogall
  • Xaver Baur
Original Article



After cargo with PCB-containing transformer oil waste was damaged in heavy seas, the vessel crew exposed to PCB developed itching and acne-form eruption of the skin. The objective of our study was to analyse this work-related incident and its effects on health.


Air and wipe test samples were taken in the ship for analysis of PCB (28/52/101/138/153/180); clinical investigations of all seafarers (n = 6) included lung function, chest X-ray, clinical chemistry and biomonitoring (plasma PCBs, chlorophenols in urine) measured after a latency of 7 weeks. The biomonitoring data were adjusted according to age-related reference values and validated against controls (n = 96).


Biomonitoring showed elevated PCB-28-/52/-102/-138 congeners (mean 1.16/0.91/136, ∑PCB: 5.82 μg/l), which correlates with the dust samples from the cargo hold (∑PCB. 9,440 mg/m2) and with 6.1 and 5.0 μg/m3 in stern and bow cargo air samples. IgE elevation in two seafarers and substantial blood sedimentation rate increase with anaemia or pulmonary emphysema were unlikely to be caused by PCB exposure. Although two members showed slightly elevated airway resistance values, other lung function parameters were normal and reactive airways dysfunction syndrome due to PCBs could be excluded. Elevated chlorophenols in urine could contribute to the manifestation of chloracne.


PCB-52/-101/-138 found in plasma and in air samples confirm exposure to PCB. Acne-form skin eruptions were from occupational exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls in the spilt transformer oil. There were no other abnormal findings in medical and clinical examinations that could be attributed to PCBs. This does not exclude possible long-term effects.


Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) Seafarers Chlorophenols Accidental exposure Clinical and laboratory diagnosis RADS (reactive airways dysfunction syndrome) 



Polychlorinated biphenyls





Chest X-ray

Chest radiograph


Carbohydrate-deficient transferring


Forced expiratory volume in 1 s/inspiratory vital capacity



We acknowledge the laboratories Fresenius, Frankfurt/Main, and Dr. Wiertz Eggert and Dr. Jörissen, Hamburg, who did the PCB monitoring in ambient air and in the wipe test samples; ZfAM colleagues for help in supporting the collection of the clinical data; Dr. Wurm for his X-ray investigations; Mrs. Johannsen for lung function testing; Mrs. Koops for flow cytometry; Mrs. Tieu for analysis of the PCBs and chlorophenols; and Dr. Kevan Willey for critical appraisal of the manuscript. The study was funded by the State Ministry for Health and Consumer Protection (XB, RW) and is a part of the WHO GPA (global plan of action) project: New chemical health risk hazards in transportation and warehousing of marine cargo because of globalisation (LTB).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lygia Therese Budnik
    • 1
    • 4
  • Ralf Wegner
    • 1
  • Ulrich Rogall
    • 2
  • Xaver Baur
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Institute for Occupational and Maritime MedicineUniversity Medical Center Hamburg-EppendorfHamburgGermany
  2. 2.Consultant in Occupational MedicineHamburgGermany
  3. 3.Charité Institute for Occupational MedicineSchool of Medicine, Charité - UniversitätsmedizinBerlinGermany
  4. 4.Institute for Occupational and Maritime Medicine (ZfAM), Division of Occupational Toxicology and Immunology, Department of Occupational HealthUniversity of Hamburg, School of MedicineHamburgGermany

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