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PCBs in schools: US needs to invest in its classrooms, report says

A new report on PCBs leaking out of caulk and fluorescent lights in public schools has refocused the national spotlight on the intersection between America’s aging infrastructure and children’s well being. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
An elementary school classroom in Boston.

Up to 14 million American school students sitting in aging classrooms could be exposed to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals that were banned almost 40 years ago, according to a new report.

Now, some environmental and health experts are calling for a federal law to mandate testing, after the revelation that so-called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may be leaching from caulking, fluorescent lighting, floor finish, and paint in an estimated 13,000 to 26,000 schools.

The push to rid schools of PCBs, a class of chemicals produced by agrochemical giant Monsanto between the 1920s and late 1970s, received some high-profile attention in recent years after celebrity Cindy Crawford headlined a parent-led campaign in Malibu, Calif. The study’s authors say it’s now clear the problem extends beyond the small beach city.

US Sen. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts on Wednesday put out a report estimating that up to 30 percent of students could be spending their school days in buildings contaminated with PCBs, which research has shown can cause serious health problems.

“This data demonstrates that PCBs in schools are a national problem,” said Dr. Robert Herrick, primary author of the study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which formed the basis of Senator Markey’s report. “And while the scope of the problem remains poorly characterized, it is clear that where people look for PCBs in schools, they are very likely to find them.”

The new PCB concerns have refocused the national spotlight on the intersection between America’s aging infrastructure and children’s well being. It comes on the heels of the Flint, Mich., water crisis, in which children were exposed to unsafe levels of lead that leached into the water supply from corroding pipes. More broadly, the PCB problem adds weight to the argument for a reinvestment in American school infrastructure – more than half a trillion dollars, the Markey report says.

However, unlike the manmade crisis in Flint, which resulted from a decision to switch the city's water supply to the Flint River by a state-appointed emergency manager, the challenge of PCBs in schools doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, groups that analyzed the EPA data say. Experts say PCBs are likely present in school buildings constructed or renovated across the country between 1950 and 1979, before their production and use in most manufacturing was banned. The need now, experts say, is to find out exactly which schools are affected and how badly.

“We need to know more. There’s already a legal limit for the amount of PCBs that can be used, but the problem is that it’s hard to enforce that if no one has to look,” says Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, which also analyzed the EPA data the Markey report was based on. “There needs to be a duty to look for PCBs just like there is a duty to look for asbestos.”

At this stage, without any mandatory reporting requirement for PCBs in schools, their discovery and disposal is hit-and-miss, Ms. Benesh says. Furthermore, the level of remediation required by schools, and how much action they take varies greatly, according to the Markey report.

In one instance, an entire school building in Lexington, Mass., was demolished because officials were unable to get rid of its PCBs. In New York, 739 schools had to replace all their fluorescent light ballasts, devices that regulate the amount of electricity to the tube.

In the Malibu case, parents spent more money battling the district in a court case than it would have cost fix the PCB problem in the schools. Last month, a federal judge ruled in the parents’ favor, banning the use of schoolrooms containing PCBs after the end of 2019, unless affected windows, door systems, and surrounding caulk had been replaced.

The PCB problems compound a growing list of needed school infrastructure repairs and modernization, according to the Markey report. For example, the Associated Press this year reported that 278 schools and daycare centers who operated their own water systems had levels of lead that exceeded allowable federal limits.

In 2013, the US Green Building Council in Washington reported that it could take an estimated $542 billion to repair and upgrade US schools.

For PCBs alone, the EPA has over the past decade received 286 reports of their presence in schools across 20 states. The Markey report estimated the cost of making the nation’s schools entirely PCB-free at between $25.9 billion and $51.8 billion.

While details of how federal, state, and local governments would foot such bills remain unclear, both EWG’s Benesh and the report say the first step is to have Congress unlock and distribute funds for testing and fixing PCB problems.

“Schools could actually be violating the federal law right now because they’re violating the federal legal limit of 50 parts per million legal limit. But they don’t know that if they haven’t looked,” Benesh says.

She adds that schools have a duty to keep parents informed about the presence of the toxic chemicals, and that there are a number of questions parents can ask:

  • First, was the school was built or retrofitted between 1950 and 1979, the timeframe in which school building materials included PCBs?
  • Has their school district done testing and is there a management plan?
  • Has the school coordinated with their regional EPA office?

“One thing’s for sure, our kids really shouldn’t be exposed to it, it has no place in our schools, and it’s not something that parents should have to worry about,” she says.

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