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Earlier this month, Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), America Unites for Kids, and the Environmental Working Group released reports about PCBs in school buildings across the United States. Their findings were based on research conducted by Harvard researcher Dr. Robert Herrick and revealed that up to 14 million students in the U.S. may be exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are industrial chemicals widely used from the 1920s to the 1970s, when safety concerns prompted the EPA to ban them from use. They are commonly found in caulks and other building materials, particularly in structures dating from 1950-1979. Though PCBs were phased out by 1979, they remain in pre-ban caulking and other building materials, as well as in the ballast of fluorescent light fixtures. As these materials break down, PCBs are released into the air and soil where they can linger for decades. Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook calls PCBs “some of the most toxic and persistent chemicals ever produced.”

Additionally, the World Health Organization categorizes PCBs as “carcinogenic to humans.” Research has linked PCB exposure to increased risk of several types of cancers. At higher levels of exposure, PCBs may affect the immune and endocrine systems and raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Maternal exposure can also affect birth weight, infant motor skills, and cognitive growth problems. PCBs are also believed to affect learning ability in school children.

How Safe is Your School?

Thousands of schools built or renovated during the period of peak PCB use (1950-1979) likely have PCBs in aging caulk, old light fixtures and soil, putting students and staff at risk for exposure. According to Senator Markey’s report, as many as 30 percent of American school children may be exposed to PCBs in school buildings.

Robert Herrick, a Harvard School of Public Health environmental health researcher, tested the air of several New York City schools where he found PCBs in caulking and light fixtures. His 2016 study estimates that between 12,000 and 26,000 schools have PCBs in their caulking materials based on the dates of the buildings. Herrick also notes that “the period of peak [PCB] use was the 1950s through the late 1970s, which unfortunately corresponds to the period of peak school construction in the U.S.”

In Malibu, parents were so concerned over the presence of PCBs, they sued the Santa Monica-Malibu school district to force them to remove the chemicals found in two district schools. Perversely, the school system spent as much money fighting the lawsuit as it would have cost to remediate the PCBs. Despite this, the judge ruled in favor of the parents and ordered the PCBs removed from the affected Malibu school buildings.

Creating Safer School Environments

As Senator Markey’s report points out, “there is no federal requirement for the inspection of schools for PCB hazards…and in most cases no state-level requirements or even publicly-available guidance for testing or inspections…” This means schools often learn of PCB hazards by chance, or worse, those hazards remain undetected. Without governmental mandates for PCB testing, it is up to parents to raise the issue with their children’s schools.

If your school was built before 1979, bring this report to the attention of school administrators and urge them to test for PCBs in caulking, air and dust. Find out the age of fluorescent light fixtures, and if they predate 1979, the school should plan to replace them as soon as possible.

The Environmental Working Group also advises asking school administrators these questions:

  • When was the school building constructed?
  • Were there any major renovations during the 1950s through the 1970s, when PCBs may have been used in caulk and other building materials?
  • Has the school or school district tested for PCBs?
  • Were any major renovations undertaken after 1979? If so, did anyone test for PCBs and remove contaminated materials?
  • If PCB testing was done, what type was it: air testing, dust sampling or caulk testing?
  • Has the school publicly released all test results, the testing method and the name and accreditation of the testing lab?
  • If PCBs were found above the legal limit of 50 parts per million, what actions were taken to test the rest of the building?
  • Has the school conducted an inventory of all fluorescent lights to identify which ones might have ballasts made with PCBs and should be removed immediately?
  • What is the school’s overall plan for removal and disposal of all PCB-contaminated fluorescent light ballasts?
  • If the school building was constructed or renovated during the 1950s through the 1970s and no testing has been done, ask them to test caulk, air and dust.
  • If any PCB sources are detected, ask the school to develop a public, transparent PCB removal and remediation plan.

Until PCB testing becomes mandatory, it’s up to concerned parents to press their districts to take action. If tests show that PCB levels in caulk exceed 50 parts per million, the school is legally obligated to remove it, as well as any contaminated surfaces. Senator Markey’s report recommends enacting legislation to require PCB testing and urges Congress to appropriate funds for both testing and remediation.

Unfortunately PCBs aren’t the only health hazards in our schools. Lead, radon, and asbestos in school buildings also pose threats to students and staff. As research continues to point to the dangers of numerous commonly used materials like PVC, schools have much work to do in order to create healthier environments for our students. With everything else school administrators have to juggle, emerging and little-recognized chemical threats not surprisingly get put on the back burner. If you want to help make your school safer, it’s up to you to draw attention to the risks posed by these chemicals.

If your school does not already have a “Green Team” or committee working to make the school environment safer, The Green Schools Initiative has tools to get you started. Working together with other parents and school staff, you can make your school healthier, greener, and safer for all who go there to learn and to teach. The most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s schools a D. Surely we can, and must, do better for our nation’s students.