School & District Management

How Districts Can Get Ahead of the PCB Threat in Their Backyard

By Mark Lieberman — October 27, 2022 5 min read
Image of school buildings on a map.
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Detecting and mitigating the toxic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, widely used in school construction materials between 1950 and 1979, can be complex and costly.

But there’s plenty that district leaders can be doing now to prepare for the possibility that PCBs may be found in their buildings and deal with them without upending a school or district’s operations.

Here are 5 things district leaders can start doing right now.

1. Familiarize yourself with state and federal regulations

At least 18 states provide PCB guidance for schools on their websites, according to an Education Week analysis. They include California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and South Carolina.

Several more have webpages that touch on PCBs, though not specifically regarding schools. They include Florida, Maine, Oregon, and Utah.

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, offers a robust set of informational resources, including a guide to levels of PCBs that require appropriate action when people of specific ages are likely to be exposed.

2. Make a long-term facilities plan—and stick to it

PCBs don’t dissipate over time. If a school building has them, they will only spread. That means it’s crucial for districts to be proactive about upgrading their facilities—ideally with substantial financial help from states and from local taxpayers.

Listing of primary and secondary sources of PCBs in older school buildings.

The Littleton school district in Colorado has crafted a 50-year plan for renovating and tearing down buildings to be sure the average age of its buildings doesn’t increase further. The plan includes a timeline for putting bond issues on the ballot for a public vote, a running list of how old each school building will be in a given year, and a detailed rundown of current and future maintenance issues, small and large, that will need to be addressed.

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3. Identify schools most likely to contain PCBs, and most likely to be affected by their presence

Schools built between 1950 and 1980 are most likely to still contain PCBs. The chemicals were in circulation since the early 1930s, so some buildings constructed during or shortly after World War II may also have them.

Consulting the district’s archive of construction and environmental records could also be worthwhile. If buildings were originally constructed during that time frame and fully renovated later, PCBs may already have been handled. Buildings that were constructed earlier or later than that are highly unlikely to yield major PCB findings.

Image showing tracking of when school buildings were built or renovated in a district.

Younger children feel the effects of PCBs most severely, so elementary schools should be high on the priority list. So should schools that serve large populations of students from low-income families, given that they’re more likely in general to experience environmental pollution.

4. Replace old light fixtures with LED equivalents—whether the old ones have PCBs or not

Testing light fixtures for PCBs might be less advantageous than simply getting rid of any that might cause a problem. LED lights emit less carbon into the environment than the fluorescent lights that were de rigeur in schools for decades. Washington state reimburses schools that proactively replace hazardous lights.

Many districts, like Salt Lake City, are already in the process of making the switch. Getting rid of old lights—and properly disposing of them—will also proactively remove one potential risk area for PCB exposure.

5. Educate parents and students on relative risk

When people hear that dangerous chemicals were found in a school building, their natural first impulse is to panic. They may not feel reassured even if more information arrives later.

District officials should do everything they can to provide staff, students, and parents with the resources they need to understand the situation. Just because a building has PCBs, for example, doesn’t mean students and staff have been exposed or that the contamination is sufficient to present a serious cause for alarm.

Getting schools on board: a cautionary tale

Getting districts to take steps like these isn’t always easy.

In the mid-2010s, officials at the Washington state health department assembled a PCB-mitigation plan that recommended tackling easy-to-remove sources of PCBs in schools—namely, light ballasts, which control the flow of electricity to light fixtures.

“You’re going to have some low background of PCBs in the air settling into surfaces, settling onto dust, even when the ballasts are intact and functional,” said Elinor Fanning, a toxicologist for the Washington state health department.

For a while, though, state lawmakers didn’t offer any funding to encourage schools to take this step. That changed after The Seattle Times and ProPublica this past January published an investigative series into the widespread illness and turmoil that resulted from long-term PCB exposures at the Sky Valley Educational Center in Monroe, Wash. Lawmakers commissioned a study, due by the end of this year, from University of Washington researchers outlining the appropriate responses to PCB findings. They also set aside $1.5 million for replacing aging light ballasts that might have PCBs

So far, however, only a single district—Reardan-Edwall, in northeastern Washington— has taken the state up on its offer to get reimbursed for replacing light fixtures.

Jim Porter, the district’s facilities director, said old light ballasts that had been discarded after a recent replacement of lights weren’t properly disposed of. Instead, they were lodged in the ceiling.

“It’s not like any of them were leaking or anything,” Porter said. “There were no signs of damage; it’s just that they were there and should have probably been removed when they did the light retrofit.”

Getting rid of those lights, 36 feet above the ground, took two people 60 hours and cost $6,000. The district paid upfront and got reimbursed by the state.

I feel that there’s a real issue in pointing at school districts with a problem unless we are equipped right away to help them solve that problem.

Why haven’t others taken the state up on its offer? They may be put off by the cost of identifying the problem in the first place.

Hiring contractors to inspect schools’ light ballasts doesn’t come cheap.

“These kinds of surveys are 5 to 25 cents per square foot. I start multiplying that out, pretty soon I’m looking at $5 million just to find a problem, and I wouldn’t have spent a penny to solve it,” said Fanning, the toxicologist.

Bob Herrick, a senior lecturer of public health at Harvard University, believes the federal government needs to take charge with a survey of its own.

“EPA has the authority to do this, but they have failed for almost 20 years to take meaningful action, so people are left to fend for themselves,” he said.

Beyond quantifying the problem, Fanning believes efforts to test and remediate should be happening simultaneously.

“If I go into schools with an air monitor and I’m standing there and I find PCBs, I should have a truck with me with a contractor right there,” Fanning said. “I feel that there’s a real issue in pointing at school districts with a problem unless we are equipped right away to help them solve that problem.”

Dive Into The Project

How PCBs Disrupt School Districts: A Vermont high school shut down and sent students and staff to a former Macy’s after high levels of PCBs were discovered. Here’s what unfolded.
Rural Schools Should Expect Confusion: Administrators at a rural Vermont school were flummoxed on how to move forward—and how to pay—after the state told them they’d need to remediate PCBs.
A PCB Primer: What you need to know about polychlorinated biphenyls, where they’re found, the threats they pose, and what can be done about them.
A Visual Guide to PCBs: How do these chemicals move from one part of a school building to another? How does exposure affect humans? An animated guide.
What Schools Can Do Now: Schools are often reluctant to test for PCBs because they’re afraid of what they might find. These proactive steps can make a difference.
The Human Toll of PCBs: A former teacher in Washington state shares the illnesses that ended her full-time teaching career and the lawsuit she pursued as a result.

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.

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