PCB Hazards in Schools
What are PCBs?
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals used as insulation, coolants, and other electrical equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics, and rubber products; and in surface coating, sealants, caulking compounds, fire retardants, glues, inks, pesticides, and carbonless copy paper. Products made before 1977 may still contain PCBs, including old fluorescent lights, electrical devices, caulking, and hydraulic oils. Production of PCBs was stopped in 1977 and the federal government banned PCBs in 1979 because of its harmful impact on the environment and human health.
PCBs are classified as a human carcinogen.
Why were they banned by the EPA?
Throughout its history, the EPA has only place a full ban on 3 materials – Lead-based paint, asbestos, and PCB’s. PCB’s were banned because exposure to the chemicals poses a variety of health risks. Low Levels if Exposures can cause the following health hazards:
- Low levels of PCB in air can cause negative impacts on adults, including attention problems.
- Children exposed to low levels of PCBs just after birth can be more susceptible to illness.
- Prenatal exposure to low levels of PCBs has been linked to significant sex hormone effects.
- Science is in the early stages of defining the risks presented by low-level exposure to PCBs (as opposed to acute exposure). But it is increasingly clear that those risks are significant.
How can PCBs affect your health?
Window and door caulking can contain PCBs and poses a similar risk of degradation over time. Another route of exposure is if the PCB-contaminated caulking has chipped and its residue falls on the soil, where it can pose health risks for decades. In old lighting fixtures made before 1979, PCB-contaminated oil will eventually leak onto nearby surfaces, such as student’s desks, or it will evaporate into the air causing poor indoor air quality. If students or school personnel are exposed to PCBs, it can pose short and long-term health effects. Short-term exposure to PCBs can irritate and burn the eyes, lungs, nose, and throat. Long-term exposure may have serious effects on the liver, immune system, endocrine system, reproductive system, and thyroid hormone levels, which could affect normal growth and development such as IQ and behavior. In addition, PCBs causes an increased risk of cancer as it is classified as a human carcinogen. PCBs are also an extremely persistent chemical that remains in the environment for decades.
Was Your School Built Before 1980?
If so, it may have PCBs, a dangerous chemical, in the air or on surfaces.
- Older school building built prior to 1979 could have caulking and fluorescent light fixtures that contain PCBs. Find out if caulking around window sills and doors and light fixtures have been removed or replaced after 1979.
- If caulking and light fixtures have not been replaced, contact the school’s principal to request replacement of these potential hazardous materials.
How can you and your child limit exposure?
- Do not touch surfaces or objects that PCBs oil has leaked onto, or caulking that may contain PCBs.
- Do not touch soil that many contain PCBs. Wipe and remove shoes after contact with contaminated soil from outside. Wash hands immediately if you came into contact with soil.
- Wash hands and other objects often that may have been exposed to PCBs.
- Improve ventilation by opening windows or adding exhaust fans.
Does the caulk in my home or other places contain PCBs?
PCBs in caulk have not been found in single-family homes. EPA has only found the chemical in caulk in large, older apartment complexes and some older buildings, such as schools.
What the experts are saying about PCBs in schools:
Dr. David O. Carpenter, Director of the Center for Health and the Environment at SUNY Albany Medical School, says there are major health effects linked to PCB exposure in studies and scholarship including: ADHD, permanent cognitive abnormalities, asthma, childhood leukemia, diabetes, endocrine irregularities, heart disease, suppressed immune system, cancer, and respiratory infections. pointed out the need to remove PCBs from schools:
“What really needs to be done is that caulk needs to be gotten out of there so there are no PCBs in the air, so that people can continue to work.”
There are a range of diseases Dr. Carpenter’s Center has studied and associated with increased exposure to PCBs that “you don’t expect to see in kids in school,” but because PCBs are so persistent, they “stay in your body and increase your risk later on in life.”
Professor Herrick, Robert Herrick, Senior Lecturer from the Harvard School of Public Health, emphasized the need for comprehensive citywide testing:
“The first step really needs to be a complete inventory of the building[s] to try to find all the sources.”
Joel Shufro, Executive Director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, discussed how the regulations around PCBs have changed and morphed depending on the cost analysis preformed during a certain point in time. He urged the EPA to acknowledge the emerging science on the health effects of PCB exposure, and apply the precautionary principle to protect school employees, teachers and children who work and learn in these buildings.
AC Cumberbatch, SEIU Local 32BJ representative, asked the EPA and DOE to consider the human health impacts of PCBs:
“We have come into a society where it’ s about how much it costs instead of what it does to our well being… How much of a cost are you putting on a human? Especially our precious, precious, precious children who are tomorrow’ s leaders.”
History of PCBs: Click Here to See Timeline of PCBs
EPA Website PCBs in Schools Research – Questions and Answers