Safety, Health and Wellbeing

Safe handling of capacitors containing PCBs

Our role is to develop and assist in the implementation of the UWA safety, health and wellbeing programs in order to minimise the risk of injury, illness and property damage.

We provide consultancy and other services to promote best practice and legislative compliance in all University and related activities.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB) are a group of very stable chemicals which resist change from ageing, wide temperature variation and influence of acids and alkalis. To prevent exposure to PCBs from leaking capacitors, all leaking capacitors must be removed and replaced with non-PCB capacitors.

Unless accurate information on PCB content of the capacitors is available, all leaking capacitors must be treated as if they do contain PCBs and adequate personal protective equipment/clothing must be worn. Swab samples of the leaking capacitor fluid or the capacitors themselves can be sent to Worksafe, or the Health Department for PCB identification. Capacitors should be properly packed (see disposal of contaminated materials).

Buildings built or renovated before 1980 are likely to have fluorescent lights with PCB filled capacitors.

  1. Typical sources of PCBs
  2. Effects in humans
  3. Personal protection
  4. Disposal of contaminated materials

Typical sources of PCBs

Importation of PCB was banned in 1976 but they are still present in some industrial products.

PCBs are found extensively in transformers and capacitors used in the electrical industry and in a wide range of other products.

Smaller PCB filled capacitors are fitted to electric motors, welders and fluorescent lights. Typically they contain about 50g of PCB. Usually they carry no label identifying the PCB content.

Metal cased capacitors usually contain PCB. A plastic cased capacitor usually does not.

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Effects in humans

PCBs can enter the body in three ways:

  1. By swallowing contaminated food or drink.
  2. By absorption through the skin.
  3. By inhaling the vapour. However, vapour concentrations at room temperature are not significant.

Once the PCBs are in the body they tend to lodge in the body fat and stay there for a considerable time. The very stability which makes them such useful materials prevents the body from eliminating them quickly.

Whatever the method of entry, excessive body contamination can cause long term health problems with the skin, eyes, hair and liver. A persistent pungent body odour may be experienced. Other health problems have been reported as the result of careless usage or accidental exposure to these chemicals.

PCBs are listed as a carcinogenic substance under the 7th Schedule of the Poisons Act 1964, administered by the Health Department of WA.

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Personal protection

Personal protective equipment/clothing required for the handling of PCBs and PCB contaminated equipment in light fittings are:

  • chemically impervious disposable overalls (Tyvek)
  • mid-arm length length nitrile rubber gloves
  • rubber boots
  • safety goggles or face shield.

At room temperature PCBs do not readily vaporise. However, if PCB vapours are suspected then suitable respirators (twin cartridge type suitable for chlorinated vapours) should be used.

If skin contamination occurs the liquid should be removed immediately with soap and water. Water alone is not sufficient. If clothing is contaminated it should be quickly removed and disposed of as recommended.

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Disposal of contaminated materials

All removal is to be undertaken by Facilities Management staff.

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