School & District Management

See Where PCBs Show Up in School Buildings, and Why That’s a Problem

By Laura Baker — October 27, 2022 3 min read
Image of paint application by paint rollers.
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PCBs were domestically manufactured for construction materials in the United States beginning in about 1930 until 1979, a time period that coincides with a boom in school construction to meet the demands of postwar birthrate growth. This increases the vulnerability of any school built or renovated before 1979.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the manufacturing of PCBs over 40 years ago, PCBs are still of concern for school building because:

  • The durability of applications means that schools that were built or renovated before 1979 may still have PCBs used in a variety of applications like caulking, sealants, coatings, and electric components.
  • PCBs migrate, vaporize, and absorb into other materials and can be stored in our bodies for a long time, so prolonged and sustained exposure has a cumulative affect.
  • Studies show high-dose exposures can diminish learning, growth, immunity, and present other health hazards.
Image of a timeline. 1929: PCBs emerge. 1979: PCBs are banned. The period between represents a time when school construction was high to meet growing demands of post-World War II birth rate.

Primary sources of PCB emissions in older school buildings

Factors that made PCBs attractive in construction applications also make them a pervasive enduring contaminant in a school building. Multiple primary sources of emissions, seen in the diagram below, are possible in any building, impacting the air quality in a facility.

Some common PCB applications: Caulk, window glazing, flourescent light ballasts, floor sealants and ceiling tile coating, insulation material including fiberglass, felt, foam, and coard, transformers and capacitors, oil-based paint, and spray-on fireproofing material.

PCBs move and transfer, creating secondary sources for harmful emissions

Heat and weathering creates conditions where PCBs transfer, move, evaporate, and absorb into the surrounding environment which creates secondary sources for PCB emissions. Secondary sources include classroom furnishings, rugs, paper, paint, dust, and any classroom material that can absorb and then also emit PCBs. These secondary sources can result in continuing exposures even after the removal or remediation of primary sources.

PCBs are absorbed by surrounding materials and environment, creating secondary sources for emmissions.

Prolonged and routine exposure is problematic for building occupants

The durability of PCBs is impacted by natural weathering, heat, and they can even be released when schools try to dismantle and remove sources. Exposure can happen through inhalation, direct skin contact, and ingestion.

Since we know that humans store PCBs in their bodies, prolonged and routine high exposure is problematic.

PCB emissions from primary and secondary sources affect air quality and could contaminate surfaces, which can have human impact through inhalation, ingestion, or dermal exposure.
Image of a school where rooms may be closed off, other rooms might be open just 3 hours during the day, and a plan to upgrade lighting and evaluate HVAC to control PCB emissions.

PCB exposure is associated with a range of toxic responses from skin rashes to impacting cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune, musculoskeletal, or neurological systems. But particularly troubling for schools is that high-level PCB exposure can have long-term affects on development and learning.

Studies show that high levels of exposure may lead to:

  • Cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Skin lesions or rashes
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Higher susceptibility to pneumonia and viral infections
  • Impaired memory, vision, and attention span
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Neurological and development delays for young children and children exposed in utero
  • Weight gain or weight loss in children born to women who are exposed

Spotlight on three common sources of PCBs

Below, see the behavior of three prevalent sources of emissions that are typical for a school building.

Three primary sources for PCB emissions in older schools: Flourescent light ballasts, caulks and window glazing, paint.

Inhalation is responsible for the majority of the exposure that could occur in schools

PCB’s evaporate slowly at room temperature, but vaporize rapidly with the rise of temperatures due to weather, heating, or utilization of equipment or lights. The vaporizing process creates inhalations hazard that can be magnified by poor ventilation and dusty environments. Improving air quality is a key first step in reducing PCB concentrations.

Dust absorbs PCB emissions. Mitigation efforts that focus on reducing indoor air PCB concentrations are likely to have the greatest impact on reducing exposures. Consider using vacuums with HEPA filters, sweep and use damp cloths for dusting, clean toys and school materials regularly, and ensure that ventilation systems are operating properly and are regularly inspected and maintained according 
to system manufacturer.

Sources: United States Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Library of Medicine, and Education Week reporting

All visual animations by Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva

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