Student Well-Being

Thousands of U.S. Schools at Risk for PCB Contamination, Studies Find

By Kate Stoltzfus — October 05, 2016 4 min read
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Thousands of schools in the United States may carry harmful health risks for students and teachers—but the causes are often invisible.

An estimated 30 percent of K-12 students are exposed to unhealthy levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, through common building materials found in schools, according to a pair of reports released Wednesday by the office of Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington.

Once a material in the production of caulking, sealants, fluorescent lights, and even paper, the chemicals could be in 30 percent to 50 percent of school buildings built between 1950 and the late 1970s. In fact, an estimated 13,000 to 26,000 schools could contain PCBs, according to some recent research by Robert Herrick, a senior lecturer on industrial hygiene at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As older building materials and lights age, PCBs can easily spread into the air and dust, paint and other building fixtures, and outside soil—and students breathe them in.

But schools are not required by law to test for PCBs or report them—or to notify teachers and parents of the potential health hazards. This means that thousands of schools that may be at risk have not been checked for such chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency received only 286 reports of PCB contamination in school buildings in 22 states over the last decade, according to data analyzed by Sen. Markey’s office. (EWA’s report includes an interactive map of reported incidents).

Because there is no legal mandate, and because testing and restoration costs can run high, schools’ responses to evidence of PCBs vary, the reports say. Some school districts removed a single light fixture; others required large restoration projects. For some of the schools that didn’t take action to remove toxins, concerned parents filed lawsuits. Earlier this month, a judge ordered the Santa Monica-Malibu school district in California to remove PCBs from window caulking in two of its schools by 2019. The lawsuit ended a three-year battle between the district and a nonprofit citizens’ group after the affected schools, which followed EPA guidelines for removal in select classrooms, refused parents’ requests to remove other building materials.

“The bells are ringing in tens of thousands of schools to signal the start of classes, but the alarm bells should be going off,” said Sen. Markey in a press call Wednesday morning. “We have no idea how many students are being exposed every day.”

A Toxic Problem

The presence of poisons in the school environment—such as asbestos in plaster or lead in paint and plumbing—is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Concerns about toxic materials in schools, especially in older buildings, became the focus of a national conversation after more than 30 schools in Flint, Mich., discovered unhealthy levels of lead in their drinking water earlier this year. A 2013 report from the Center for Green Schools estimates the cost to make necessary repairs to school buildings to improve health and safety could be $542 billion.

The agriculture corporation Monsanto was the first to manufacture PCBs. By the time Congress banned the use and manufacturing of the chemicals in 1976, harmful effects were already unfolding in thousands of schools. By 1979, the chemicals were legal only within enclosed equipment, such as light ballasts, and the materials could not exceed 50 parts per million. But after years of use, even enclosed materials can leak chemicals into the air.

Health problems that can result from exposure to PCBs—while never officially studied in schools—are wide-ranging. PCBs can cause cancer, lower birth weights in babies, decreased thyroid hormone function, and damage to the immune, endocrine, reproductive, and neurological systems. In schools where PCBs are present, teachers and students have higher levels of the chemical in their blood, Herrick wrote in his study. And David Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany found that PCBs can damage children’s learning ability and IQ, according to EWG’s report.

What Can Schools Do?

To protect students and teachers, the reports suggest mandatory inspections and PCB testing for all at-risk schools. The EPA and state public health officials should let local districts know of the potential dangers. Schools should test and remove all materials such as paint and caulk that may directly contain PCBs, replace older fluorescent light fixtures, and check both school buildings and grounds for any remaining chemicals even after testing and removal. Schools should also inform parents and educators of the health risks. The reports also call for stronger federal regulations from the EPA to help schools begin to uncover and address the chemical hazards in their classrooms.

Sen. Markey announced in an email Wednesday morning that he plans to introduce legislation to require school inspection and testing for PCBs, as well as legislation for federal assistance for projects to inspect and remove the chemicals.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.