A Back-To-School Problem You Don’t Want: PCB Chemicals

A Back-To-School Problem You Don’t Want: PCB Chemicals

August 26, 2023

Five Questions on Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) with Dr. David Carpenter, M.D.

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

Aging school buildings can harbor a number of hazards, including lead paint, poor indoor air quality, and radon. Add to this list polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a heavy industrial oil which was outlawed back in the 1970s due to health concerns. PCBs can be found in light fixtures, old paint, and caulk. Here’s everything you need to know about them from Dr. David O. Carpenter, Director, of the Institute for Health and the Environment University at Albany.

Read on to find out of your school has PCBs, why they’re of concern, and what parents and administrators can do about them as we head into a new school year.

Q1. What’s a PCB? Why would it ever be in a school?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a heavy industrial oil that was manufactured in the US between 1929 and 1977, when production was outlawed because PCBs were found to be persistent and accumulating in wildlife and humans. PCBs were useful because they were relatively non-flammable and were good electrical insulators. They were used as solvents as well, and had several purposes in schools. They were in the fluorescent light fixture ballasts, where they were good electrical insulators. They were used as solvents for paints and caulking. After they were banned for new production and use they remained in old light ballasts until they were replaced. Unfortunately many of these old ballasts are still in operation, and some leak. The PCBs in the paint and caulking slowly volatilize and then can be breathed in by students, teachers and staff.

Q2. If PCBs were phased out in the 70s, why are they still an issue? What are the health concerns for kids?

The problem is twofold. PCBs are very persistent in the environment and in the human body. Therefore those manufactured years ago are still around, and we all have them in our bodies. They are found in almost all animal fats, so we eat them as well as breathe them. In addition, EPA never required that PCBs in a “closed” environment, like an electrical capacitor or a fluorescent light ballast, be removed. As a result there are a number of old devices still in use that contain PCBs, and these constantly pose a threat of leaking or spilling. PCB exposure has been linked to reductions in a child’s IQ and learning ability. PCBs are known to reduce attention span in both children and adults. These are the last things one wants in a school, where children come to learn. These effects are in addition to other long-term risks of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and endocrine disturbances.

Q3. How can a parent tell if a school has PCBs and are there rules in place to help parents protect their children?

The major consideration is the age of the school. New uses of PCBs were prohibited in the late 1970s, but if a school was built before 1980 there is a good possibility that some of the building materials contained PCBs. With appropriate upgrades these older device should have been removed, but many schools can’t afford the level of care that would result in removal of these old devices, and things like caulking is unlikely to ever be removed from an old building.

Q4. Is removing and replacing PCBs safe? If a school district is already strapped for cash (and which district at this point is not?), how can this work be paid for? What should they be replaced with that is safe for kids and teachers?

This is a major problem. PCBs are dangerous chemicals, but can be removed safely with appropriate care. Old fluorescent light fixtures are not difficult to remove and replace. Getting out caulk and old paint is more complicated, but can be done safely. The old PCBs removed must be treated as hazardous waste and deposed of properly. But all of this is very expensive and there are no funds available to cover the costs beyond those from local taxes. In many cases the cost of removing the PCBs from a highly contaminated old school may be greater than building a new school.

Q5. If a district or a school cannot currently remove the PCBs, what should a parent do? Are there steps that can be taken to safeguard kids in a school where PCBs remain?

In New York City schools, the greatest danger has been shown to be from the fluorescent light ballasts, and removal and replacement of these is not outrageously expensive. Furthermore the old light fixtures are not energy efficient, so there are cost savings from their replacement. Parents should press school boards and administrators to take action if this is a source of PCB exposure. Removal of caulk and old paint is more difficult and much more expensive. Schools should conduct air monitoring in different rooms of the school, and not place children in more highly contaminated rooms for long periods of time. Open windows will reduce the air concentration of PCBs. The best solution is clearly removal of the PCBs, but the limitation is the cost.