The toxicity of PCBs to animals was first noticed in the 1970s when emaciated seabird corpses with very high PCB body burdens washed up on beaches. Since seabirds may die far out at sea and still wash ashore, the true sources of the PCBs were unknown. Where they were found is no reliable indicator of where they had died.
The toxicity of PCBs varies considerably among congeners. The coplanar PCBs, known as non-ortho PCBs because they are not substituted at the ring positions ortho to (next to) the other ring, (i.e. PCBs 77, 126, 169, etc), tend to have dioxin-like properties, and generally are among the most toxic congeners. Because PCBs are almost invariably found in complex mixtures, the concept of toxic equivalency factors (TEFs) has been developed to facilitate risk assessment and regulatory control, where more toxic PCB congeners are assigned higher TEF values. One of the most toxic compounds known, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo[p]dioxin, is assigned a TEF of 1.
 Signs and symptoms
The most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to PCBs are skin conditions such as chloracne and rashes, but these were known to be symptoms of systemic poisoning dating back to the 1922. Studies in workers exposed to PCBs have shown changes in blood and urine that may indicate liver damage. In 1968 in Japan, PCB contamination in rice bran oil caused a mass poisoning known as Yushō Disease in over 14,000 people. Common symptoms included dermal and ocular lesions, irregular menstrual cycles and a lowered immune response. Other symptoms included fatigue, headache, cough, and unusual skin sores. Additionally, in children, there were reports of poor cognitive development.
There have also been studies of the health effects of PCBs in the general population and in children of mothers who were exposed to PCBs.
Animals that eat PCB-contaminated food even for short periods of time get liver damage and may die. In 1968 in Japan, 400,000 birds died after eating poultry feed that was contaminated with PCBs. Animals that eat smaller amounts of PCBs in food over several weeks or months develop various kinds of health effects, including anemia; acne-like skin conditions (chloracne); and liver, stomach, and thyroid gland injuries (including hepatocarcinoma). Other effects of PCBs in animals include changes in the immune system, behavioral alterations, and impaired reproduction. PCBs are not known to cause birth defects in humans, although those that have dioxin-like activity are known to cause a variety of teratogenic effects in animals.
* Effects during pregnancy/breastfeeding
Women who were exposed to relatively high levels of PCBs in the workplace or ate large amounts of fish contaminated with PCBs had babies that weighed slightly less than babies from women who did not have these exposures. Babies born to women who ate PCB-contaminated fish also showed abnormal responses in tests of infant behavior. Some of these behaviors, such as problems with motor skills and a decrease in short-term memory, lasted for several years. Other studies suggest that the immune system was affected in children born to and nursed by mothers exposed to increased levels of PCBs. The most likely way infants will be exposed to PCBs is from breast milk. Transplacental transfers of PCBs were also reported.
Studies have shown that PCBs alter estrogen levels in the body and contribute to reproduction problems. In the womb, males can be feminized or the baby may be intersex, neither a male nor a female. Also, both sets of reproductive organs may develop. More instances of this are being reported. Biological magnification of PCBs has also led to polar bears and whales that have both male and female sex organs and males that cannot reproduce. This effect is also known as endocrine disruption. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC's) pose a serious threat to reproduction in top-level predators.
 Cancer link
A few studies of workers indicate that PCBs were associated with specific kinds of cancer in humans, such as cancer of the liver and biliary tract. Rats that ate food containing high levels of PCBs for two years developed liver cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has concluded that PCBs may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that PCBs are probably carcinogenic to humans. PCBs are also classified as probable human carcinogens by the National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Recent research by the National Toxicology Program has confirmed that PCB126 (Technical Report 520) and a binary mixture of PCB126 and PCB153 (Technical Report 531) are carcinogens.
 Mechanism of action
As discussed, PCBs exhibit a wide range of toxic effects. These effects may vary depending on the specific PCB. Similar to dioxin, toxicity of coplanar PCBs and mono-ortho-PCBs are thought to be primarily mediated via binding to aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR). Because AhR is a transcription factor, abnormal activation may disrupt cell function by altering the transcription of genes. The concept of toxic equivalency factors (TEF) is based on the ability of a PCB to activate AhR.
However, not all effects may be mediated by the AhR receptor. For example, di-ortho-substituted non-coplanar PCBs interfere with intracellular signal transduction dependent on calcium; this may lead to neurotoxicity. Ortho-PCBs may disrupt thyroid hormone transport by binding to transthyretin.