The danger to students is uncertain, and the EPA does not know for sure how many schools could be affected. But the agency is telling schools that they should test old caulk and remove it if PCBs turn up in significant amounts.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said PCBs remain in schools and many other buildings built before the chemicals were banned in the late 1970s. Formally known as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs were widely used in construction and electrical materials.
“We’re concerned about the potential risks associated with exposure to these PCBs, and we’re recommending practical, common-sense steps to reduce this exposure as we improve our understanding of the science,” Ms. Jackson said in a news release Sept. 25.
The agency said it would conduct new research into the link between PCBs in caulk and in the air, which it said is not well understood. Studies in European countries have shown that PCBs in caulk contribute to dust and air inside schools and other buildings.
The EPA now recommends testing for PCBs in peeling, brittle, cracking, or deteriorating caulk in schools and other buildings that were built or renovated between 1950 and 1978. The caulk should be removed if PCBs are found at significant levels, the agency says. The EPA also will conduct its own tests on PCBs in schools.
The law already requires that building owners remove caulk if they discover very high levels of PCBs. But proper removal is expensive.
“It’s a huge disincentive for building owners,” said Robert Herrick of Harvard University’s school of public health. “If you look for it and find it, you have to report it to the EPA and remove it, so why would you look for it in the first place?”
He said Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts saw an approximately $2 million project for window replacement and renovation increase to $5 million after engineers tested caulk and found PCBs.
Earlier this month, a mother in the Bronx sued New York City over PCBs in caulk at her daughter’s public school.
New York City schools spokeswoman Ann Forte declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the school system is talking with the EPA about a plan to address PCBs in the city’s schools.
Federal officials say the issue is serious but should not be cause for alarm. The agency has also set up a PCBs-in-caulk hotline, (888) 835-5372, and Web site.
A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as EPA Urges Schools to Check for Caulk Containing PCBs