In June, contractors visited the Cabot School here in northern Vermont on state’s orders to test buildings for toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a known carcinogen whose manufacture was banned nationwide in 1979.
Then two months went by.
“I was sort of sitting here thinking, no news is good news,” said Mark Tucker, the superintendent of the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, which includes the 160-student Cabot School.
He was wrong. On Aug. 19, the contractors called to deliver their verdict: The Cabot School’s gymnasium, housed in a 1971 building that hasn’t been renovated since, had PCB levels high enough that children in 6th grade and below should no longer use the space, per state guidance.
The art room, in a separate building also built in the 1970s but renovated in 2017, had levels that weren’t safe for preschoolers, but were safe for the school’s entire K-12 population.
Among other uses, PCBs were commonly included to help strengthen long-lasting building materials from the 1950s until 1979.
The EPA in 1979 banned PCB manufacturing, but researchers estimate thousands of school buildings still have them in caulk, light ballasts, paint, and ceiling tile—and that, in many cases, PCBs have spread into the walls and the air. Experts believe PCBs are responsible for heightened risk of long-term diseases including cancer, as well as short-term consequences like loss of attention span.
But a rural administrator confronted by the presence of such chemicals could easily be overwhelmed by the complex science behind PCBs in a school setting.
Earlier this fall, Tucker was flummoxed, particularly by the varying state guidance regarding exposure depending on the age of the students who would be in a particular building.
“I didn’t want to get into conversations with families like, your 5th grader can’t be in the gym, but your 8th grader can be,” he said. So, along with Principal Rebecca Tatistcheff, he decided to shut down the gym entirely.
At first, that might not seem like such a big deal. No classrooms had to be closed, and physical education classes can move outside, at least when the weather is warm and dry enough.
“I know dang well that somebody’s going to have a bigger problem than what I have,” Tucker said.
The district got a bit of good news earlier this month when the state ordered re-testing after finding out that the Cabot School’s ventilation systems hadn’t been turned on during the previous round of tests. With air-conditioning running, PCB levels came back less than a third of the original figures. The gym is now permitted to reopen, though it’s still unclear whether further remediation will be necessary.
Even with the reversal, however, these disruptions to everyday business have caused headaches for Tucker, Tatistcheff, and the wider Cabot community.
Navigating bureaucracy and communications challenges
An early sign of how frustrating the process can be: The state’s environmental conservation department inadvertently posted Cabot’s original PCB test results on its website without waiting its promised 10 days to allow the district to figure out logistics and messaging.
Along with the testing mandate spurred by the discovery of PCBs at Burlington High School about an hour from Cabot, Vermont legislators allocated $32 million to help schools statewide remediate PCBs they discover during new state-mandated testing. But when Tucker called the state education department to ask how to get the money, he was told no process has been set up.
“Almost any money that has to be put into remediation is money that we don’t have in our current budget, and I’m not sure where we’re going to get it if the state doesn’t stand behind the promise they made,” he said. The school’s annual operating budget typically falls around $3 million.
Tucker was also responsible, his state contacts told him, for hiring an engineer to follow up on the state PCB tests in more detail. He had never done anything of the sort.
State workers sent him a two-page list of local contractors, but several he called were water engineers with no experience dealing with PCBs.
Trish Coppolino, the senior environmental program manager for the environmental conservation agency, said state testing got off to a slow start because of challenges coordinating with Vermont’s health and education agencies and issues communicating with the few PCB testing labs in the area.
The state has designated 330 Vermont school buildings out of nearly 400 for testing.
Eight have been tested so far, and two, including in Cabot, have returned PCB levels above the levels for required action somewhere on their campuses. The Cabot numbers have since been revised and now fall below the threshold for immediate action.
The state expects to begin receiving results for two to three schools a week, Coppolino said.
Slowdowns at the state level have implications for districts’ daily operations and services. The Cabot gym typically serves as community space for local athletic groups, most of which didn’t have another site. It also provides space for the Cabot School’s sports teams, which are combined with students from Twinfield, the next town over.
Tip of the iceberg
Thousands more schools across the country could be facing similar dilemmas in the coming years. On Oct. 17, a parent at a high school in Colonia, N.J., said she had found elevated levels of PCBs as well as other dangerous chemicals at a school where authorities have been investigating a reported cluster of more than 100 teachers with brain tumors.
Many rural, urban, and suburban schools around the country, particularly in high-poverty areas with minimal staffing and a dearth of resources, won’t be prepared for such revelations.
The town of Cabot—which has a population of just under 1,500 residents—lies just 20 miles northeast of Montpelier, the state capital. One road, Main Street, leads in and out. Just down that road from the school is the famous Cabot cheese factory.
The rural community has grown more sparse in recent years, with consolidation in the dairy industry driving away jobs.
“We are the social services organization in the community and an economic sustainer,” Tucker said of the school system. He’s been managing the PCB issues himself, without administrative deputies to relieve the burden.
The school spends nearly $20,000 per student each year—well above the national average but below the average among Vermont schools. Mental health needs have grown during the pandemic, and many students are behind on instruction.
So far, Tucker and Tatistcheff said parents and students haven’t reacted much to the challenges PCBs have posed to school operations. In fact, several emails they’ve sent to the community didn’t generate any responses, which isn’t typical in Cabot, even for less notable updates.
They think that’s in part because the community is still recovering from the devastation wrought by COVID, on top of the plight of being rural and easily overlooked by policymakers.
“When you’ve just recovered from breaking your leg, you’re not too worried about a hangnail,” Tucker said.
The superintendent said he and his colleagues have struggled to grasp how the invisible threat of PCBs compares to the problems caused by the costly process of remediation.
But the disruption may last a while. Recent testing in the affected Cabot School buildings will determine whether the entire gym will eventually have to be demolished or whether an elevated portion of it behind a wall can be sealed off.
Initial testing cost the district $32,000. After Tucker fielded months of emails and phone calls back and forth, state lawmakers this week agreed to reimburse the district for 80 percent of that cost, leaving $6,400 on the district’s tab.
All of the work Tucker has had to do to get acquainted with the ins and outs of PCB testing in the state may well pave the way for neighboring districts facing similar challenges in the years ahead, Tucker said. He believes lawmakers need to anticipate the complexities of an interagency program before they mandate costly activities for schools.
“If it makes it easier for some of my superintendent colleagues elsewhere in the state, who am I to complain about that?” Tucker said. “Somebody had to go first.”
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.