The exterior of Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on Sept. 19, 2022. The school has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.
School & District Management

‘The Building Was Sick': PCBs Pose an Environmental Crisis for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — October 27, 2022 18 min read
School & District Management

‘The Building Was Sick': PCBs Pose an Environmental Crisis for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — October 27, 2022 18 min read
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In late August 2020, Beth Fialko-Casey pulled into the parking lot at Burlington High School in Vermont for her first day back to in-person teaching since the pandemic began.

But as the English teacher and president of the local teachers’ union stepped out of her car, she confronted an unfamiliar sight: The six brown buildings that make up the campus were covered in caution tape. Hazmat signs dotted the ground.

She was concerned—but not exactly surprised.

“It was no shock to any of us that our building was a hazmat site,” Fialko-Casey said. Her workplace of nearly 15 years had long endured mold, rain leaking into the building, drafts and heat surges, even sewage backups. “We could have told you that without any testing. ... It was just this sense that the building was sick.”

Caution tape and caution signs surround Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on May 9, 2021.

This time, the diagnosis was terminal. The culprit was the discovery of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs—contamination that would lead to shutdown of the building and transfer of all students and staff.

Burlington’s experience is a cautionary tale for school administrators nationwide.

Persistent and pernicious, PCBs lurk in thousands of school buildings around the country where they were used in construction materials decades ago. Their presence can jeopardize the health and safety of students and staff if they’re not handled proactively, and their detection and removal can upend school operations.

“Even really good facilities managers who know their buildings pretty well, and have the right interests in mind, unless they go through light fixtures and ceilings with an eye toward this particular problem, they may not know they have it,” said Elinor Fanning, a toxicologist for the Washington state health department. “You may not know you have a problem until you have a bigger problem.”

In Burlington, students found out after the first day of a new school year that they wouldn’t be returning to the high school building. The news hit hard.

“We all thought, ‘The pandemic hit us pretty bad. OK, now we’re starting the school year, things are starting to get back to normal,’” said Gussie Guyette, who was a sophomore at the school when the old building shut down. “All of a sudden, we were hit with PCBs, and now we’re backtracking.”

Why schools are at risk

PCBs were manufactured in the United States from the 1930s to the late 1970s for a variety of purposes. Builders loved them because they helped ensure that caulking to keep materials together would last longer instead of drying out.

They’re ubiquitous in school buildings from the 1950s to the late 1970s. Bob Herrick, a public-health researcher for Harvard University, estimates roughly one-third of the nation’s 130,000 school buildings could have caulk that contains PCBs—and even more may have PCBs in light fixtures, ceiling and floor tiles, paint chips, the soil, and the air.

Within Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., sample materials have been removed for testing. The school has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.

Prolonged exposure to the highly toxic chemicals is dangerous to humans, according to researchers and governments across the world. PCBs increase the risk of chronic diseases like cancer and short-term symptoms like diminished attention span and difficulty breathing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1979 banned their manufacture.

“You can think of it as being a sister or brother to lead and asbestos,” said Bernie Mizula, an industrial hygienist for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. In recent decades, both of those chemicals have sparked a wide range of laws and regulations as schools grapple with the threats posed by leaving them alone and by disrupting operations to remove them.

Meanwhile, a handful of schools have stumbled across PCBs in the last few decades, usually while preparing for a long-awaited renovation project.

Thanks to chronic underfunding of school facilities, thousands more school districts nationwide lack the knowledge and resources to overcome the discovery of a deadly chemical that may very well be lurking in their buildings. Some researchers estimate $25 billion to $50 billion might be necessary to fully remove PCBs from all schools nationwide.

Kevin Coghlan has been conducting PCB testing in schools since the late 1990s.

“We are finding health effects at lower and lower levels. They’re subtle, but they’re real,” said Coghlan, the president and principal scientist for Environmental Health Engineering, a private contractor. “And yet, we also recognize that districts have a very serious and important mission to educate these children. And, of course, there’s [not enough] money. It just makes for a very, very difficult dilemma.”

Contamination from PCBs and exposure to them led to multimillion dollar lawsuits against school districts and Monsanto, the company now owned by Bayer that served as the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the U.S. during the 21st century. For its part, Monsanto rejects all accusations that it’s responsible for the consequences of PCB contamination or exposure in schools.

In schools, those consequences can be devastating. For instance:

  • The Clark School, an elementary school in Hartford, Conn., closed in 2015 after crews discovered toxic levels of PCBs during a sprinkler installation. The city has spent the last three years awaiting a judge’s verdict on whether Monsanto should pay $12 million for the costs of tearing down the building.
  • Parents in Southern California, including celebrities like model Cindy Crawford, were angered by the pace of the Santa Monica-Malibu district’s response in the early 2010s to findings of high levels of PCBs at Malibu High School as well as widespread reports of teachers developing chronic illnesses. A judge in 2016 issued an order requiring the district to abate PCBs at the school by 2024; that work is in progress.
  • In Washington state, dozens of teachers and students were sickened after prolonged exposure to PCBs at the Sky Valley Education Center in the Monroe district. Last summer, three former Sky Valley teachers won a $185 million jury verdict that deemed Monsanto financially responsible for those illnesses, which the company is appealing. The district, meanwhile, in February agreed to a $34 million settlement in multiple lawsuits by roughly 200 students and parents in the community over PCB contamination and exposure.
  • Earlier this month, a separate jury ruled that Monsanto owes three Sky Valley parents and seven students a total of $275 million in damages due to PCB exposure. The company is appealing that verdict. Education Week reviewed video footage of testimony from that trial, including from several ailing children, who fought back tears at times as they described how mental and respiratory illnesses have upended their lives. “I feel embarrassed and scared for the future and what it might be like for me,” one teenage girl said.

This list is virtually certain to balloon. Just this month, a parent in Colonia, N.J., revealed she’d found evidence of PCBs at her child’s high school, following widespread reports of cancer among teachers.

Three-quarters of school principals and district leaders who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey this fall said at least one school building in their district was built or last renovated between 1950 and 1980, when PCBs in commercial construction were at their peak. One in 5 said more than three-quarters of their buildings date back to that time period.

Slightly less than one-quarter of district leaders and principals who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said their school or district has tested HVAC systems for PCBs in the last five years. Seventeen percent said they’ve tested indoor air for PCBs.

But experts say many school district leaders are often reluctant to test for PCBs, for a few reasons.

Figuring out how to get rid of them, who can do that work, how long it will take, and how much it will cost is time-consuming and punishing, particularly for districts with limited resources. Communicating findings to the public often means stirring up fear, anxiety, and mistrust. PCBs aren’t well-known enough for politicians to see much value in fighting for their eradication.

Burlington High School’s experience encapsulates many of those issues.

Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.

When PCBs were discovered there, state and federal leaders eventually urged the district to permanently shut down the campus. That meant scrambling to find a local building that could function as a temporary school, retrofitting a former Macy’s department store to serve that purpose, and pressing state leaders for funding to support it all.

All the while, school and district leaders were trying to persuade a divided and skeptical public already enduring the COVID pandemic that each new decision was the right one.

Cost alone is a major factor for the district, which spends about $11,000 per year per student, according to federal data. That’s roughly $2,000 below the national average. Slightly less than half the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

But Vermont, which halted nearly all state aid for school construction in 2007, is one of nearly a dozen states that offers virtually no money for improving school facilities. Though Burlington voters in 2018 approved a $70 million bond to renovate the old high school buildings, that work didn’t begin in earnest until 2020.

Now, while administrators find funds and contractors to construct a new building, the urban district with a $98 million operating budget is paying a private developer $1 million a year to rent the downtown building previously occupied by Macy’s.

Voters are poised to decide on Nov. 8 whether to approve a $165 million bond that will make up the bulk of the cost of an entirely new high school. If the public votes in favor, construction could begin early next year.

In the meantime, administrators have applied for 16 private, state, and federal grants to ease taxpayers’ burden. On Oct. 13, they announced plans to sue Monsanto to compensate for the costs of the PCB disruptions.

“From the moment our school was shut down due to the presence of these toxic chemicals, we’ve considered a lawsuit to hold accountable those who have created this harm,” said Tom Flanagan, the district’s superintendent.

The district plans to file the suit in the next two months, Flanagan said. On Oct. 24, during a meeting with lawmakers, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said the state is considering legal action against Monsanto as well, VT Digger reported.

Money isn’t the only concern. Earlier this month, two special education teachers who worked at the school within the last seven years sued Monsanto, charging that PCB exposure there led to a panoply of cognitive and reproductive issues, including miscarriages.

The ripple effects from Burlington’s experience are fanning out in policy circles as well. Vermont last year became the first state to pass a law requiring PCB testing in all schools built before 1980. Lawmakers also set aside $32 million to help schools get rid of PCBs or otherwise deal with the impacts on their facilities.

Other states could follow with their own mandates, or commission studies and resources to isolate the problem, as Washington state lawmakers did in the wake of the Sky Valley saga.

And administrators elsewhere are watching uneasily as Burlington struggles to contain the damage.

“I think right now it’s like a wish and a prayer,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent of the rural Slate Valley, Vt., district. “None of us really have plans if this happens.”

How Burlington’s crisis unfolded

It was midway through the first day of in-person school since the pandemic began. Lauren McBride, then the assistant principal, was in the Burlington High School gym, taking a 20-minute workout lunch break, when her boss, then-Principal Noel Green, texted an urgent plea for her to come upstairs.

“It was one of those things where you knew something really bad had happened,” said McBride, now the school’s principal.

State officials had advised the school district to shut down the school immediately, the principal said. Construction crews had found PCBs while preparing to break ground on renovating the building, and tests had come back showing alarmingly high levels in some parts of the campus. More testing was needed.

McBride and Flanagan, the district’s superintendent since July 2020, said they had heard of PCBs but weren’t aware of the threat they posed to old school buildings until the test results came back. Other administrators nationwide are in the same boat.

Later that year, state and federal agencies advised Flanagan’s team to shutter the building for good, which they did. Some parents thought the decision to close the entire campus was damaging to students.

Caroline Beer, a comparative-politics professor at the University of Vermont, at the time had two children who attended Burlington High. Alongside other parents in an ad hoc group called Open BHS, she raised concerns over Vermont’s guidelines for mitigating PCB risk, which are more strict than comparable rules from the EPA. Their proposed solutions included partially reopening the high school or relocating students temporarily to a nearly middle school, which happened for a few weeks.

“My view was, ‘Put them anywhere, anytime, for as much time as possible to get them out of my basement for as many hours a week as you can,’” Beer said.

State leaders tacitly acknowledged the Open BHS group’s concerns a few months later, raising the indoor air levels of PCBs that require actions like shutting down an entire building.

But reopening the building was politically untenable by that point, Beer and other parents acknowledge.

Students and staff have since settled in at the converted department store slightly more than a mile from the original suburban campus and adorned with an enormous “Downtown BHS” banner.

None of the vibrant artwork that greets students as they enter was here when the building opened in early 2021. Walls were bare, lights were blinding, and classroom chatter traveled rapidly from one room to the next.

The building has become far more school-like since then, with newly installed soundproofing and plenty of signs and decorations. Macy’s changing rooms have become storage closets, the shoe department is now the choir department, dishware became books. Fashion-brand logos still appear on some walls.

But there’s no place to put an oven or stove, so most meals are shipped from other school sites. Escalators between floors frequently break; a posted sign shares the number of days since the last disruption. Career and technical programs have migrated to several sites in downtown Burlington, including near the international airport.

Gaby Schulman, a senior at Burlington High who was a sophomore when the old building closed down, likes being able to walk around and get food downtown during lunch. But she misses cheering at pep rallies in the old building’s gym and gathering with her whole grade for lunch in the cafeteria.

“When I see memories on my phone, it makes me so sad,” Schulman said. “I love it here, but it’s like, obviously we’re going to miss our [old] high school.”

Still, students and teachers have tried their best to make the new building home. Some seniors last year organized a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with floats that traveled down Cherry Street past the school. Others posted TikToks that went viral, dubbing themselves the “Burlington Mallrats.”

Teachers, meanwhile, have found more opportunities to interact than they did in the old building, where those who taught similar subjects were clustered together, far away from other departments.

The new building has become such a hit that some people don’t want to leave for the eventual new facility, administrators said.

“I’m still waiting for a prom-posal down the escalator,” McBride said.

Fiscal worries and health anxieties remain

Not all schools that discover PCBs will have the tools to adapt in such a nimble fashion. Burlington is the most prominent city in Vermont, and the state kicked in nearly $4 million to help the district navigate the emergency.

Convincing Burlington’s mayor to support the $165 million bond for a new school amid other fiscal challenges for the city was a steep political challenge districts elsewhere may struggle to match.

Even in Burlington, as in other places where the public’s relationship with schools is fickle and tenuous, the prospect of a failed vote on Nov. 8 looms large.

The health anxieties surrounding the contamination continue as well. Jane Donahue Davis, now a substitute teacher elsewhere in Vermont, spent 34 years working at Burlington High School, including 30 years in the career-tech-center building, where PCB levels were highest.

In 1995, while still at Burlington High, Davis was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Doctors couldn’t identify the source. She caught it early, went into remission, and feels healthy today.

But her son was born with mysterious knee-joint problems that have prevented him from playing sports.

And she’s concerned about what seems like a large number of her colleagues who spent time in that building who have cancer, heart disease, or breathing issues. Researchers consider PCB exposure to significantly elevate risk for all of those diseases and more.

After receiving the PCB findings, district officials urged current employees to check in with their physicians. Fialko-Casey, the English teacher and union leader, said some colleagues who had been in the building for a while rushed out for early colonoscopies.

When I see memories on my phone, it makes me so sad. I love it here, but it’s like, obviously we’re going to miss our [old] high school.

Having moved on to substitute-teach elsewhere, Davis is now interested in joining a lawsuit against Monsanto, after seeing two former Burlington staff members who worked in the same building do just that earlier this month.

One former special education teacher who worked in the building suffered a miscarriage, according to the lawsuit filing. Then she got pregnant again, but her unborn child was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, and she endured a planned termination of the pregnancy after 16 weeks. She eventually gave birth to two children—both arrived prematurely. The filing alleges all of these challenges were caused and exacerbated by the teacher’s prolonged exposure to PCBs.

Another special education paraprofessional has experienced major cognitive issues after working in the building from 2015 to 2020, the filing says.

For three teachers in Washington state, similar litigation eventually bore fruit.

Joyce Marquardt, a former teacher at Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe, at first was reluctant to get involved in suing her school district or Monsanto, even after enduring years of chronic fatigue, endometriosis, and issues with breathing and menstruation that she’s confident were caused by PCB exposure.

She joined two other teachers in one of more than a dozen lawsuits against Monsanto and the Monroe district. The latter settled its claims for $34 million; Monsanto is continuing to fight the lawsuits in court. Last summer, a jury declared that Monsanto owes $185 million to Marquardt and two other teachers; the company has filed an appeal.

Participating in lawsuits adds to the toll of the physical health issues that prompt them in the first place.

“To know that they’re going to have to go on record and publicly expose themselves just to prove that there was damage done ... that is really painful to watch,” Marquardt said.

And the settlements will not alleviate the crisis, in her view.

“Is Monsanto going to pay to remediate schools? Is it going to pay for research to be done to see how to treat people who have been affected by PCBs? How do you make that happen?” she said. “In the end, it’s the taxpayers who are going to end up paying for it.”

In this Jan. 4, 2019 photo, workers and other officials gather outside the Sky Valley Education Center school in Monroe, Wash., before going inside to collect samples for testing. The samples were tested for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, as well as dioxins and furans. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several families and teachers claims that officials failed to adequately respond to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the school.

A spokesperson from Bayer, which owns Monsanto, wrote in an email statement that the company’s third-party customers, not the company itself, manufactured the PCBs that were found in Burlington High and the Sky Valley Education Center in Washington. The spokesperson also said the school districts are at fault for neglecting to follow nonbinding federal guidelines for proactively testing for and remediating PCBs.

“We believe that litigation regarding school health and safety should be decided on the facts and the law, rather than on made-for-litigation pseudo-science,” the spokesperson wrote. “This is why we will continue to fight these cases in court and appeal any adverse verdicts.”

Resources complicate the picture for school administrators

In Vermont, concerns around PCBs aren’t playing out in a vacuum. The state is wrestling with other costly education priorities, including the aftermath of a 2014 mandate for universal pre-K, a 2015 consolidation of school systems, and this year’s program for universal free school meals.

The main school building in Cabot, Vt., as seen on Oct. 13, 2022.

The state allocated some funds for districts that discover PCBs. But the Cabot school district about an hour from Burlington—the first one flagged for concerning PCB levels as statewide testing began this summer—hasn’t been able to access the money yet.

“Folks were celebrating the fact that we were the first in the nation to test for PCBs,” said Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont State Superintendents Association. “Let’s make sure that we’re also first in the nation to support the schools and school officials when PCBs are identified.”

Federal funding is similarly hard to come by. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in 2016 published a lengthy report on PCBs in schools, and he crafted a 2021 bill seeking $52 billion in federal funds for schools to tackle PCB concerns. But that bill has languished.

A request this February from Markey and two progressive House members for the EPA to allocate parts of its annual discretionary budget toward PCB remediation in schools also went unanswered.

While policy debates play out at a snail’s pace, the daily task of educating children and running a safe school facility remain.

“I really believe that the physical space you’re in reflects your values, and I can’t wait to have a high school that reflects our values,” said Fialko-Casey.

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