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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 1:20 EDT

Public School Buildings Infected With PCBs

September 29, 2009

The EPA says that hundreds of school buildings across the U.S. have caulk around windows and doors that contain potentially cancer-causing PCBs.

It is not known how many schools could be affected, nor the danger it causes to students.  However, the agency is still telling schools to test old caulk and remove it if PCBs turn up in significant amounts.

Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator, said PCBs remain in schools and many other buildings built before the chemicals were banned in the late 1970s.

“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,” Jackson said in a news release issued Friday.

The agency said it would conduct tests to study the link between PCBs in caulk and in the air, which is currently not well understood.  European countries have conducted research that has 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.  If significant levels of PCBs are found, then the caulk should be removed, according to the agency. 

The law already says that if high levels of PCBs are discovered, then building owners are required to remove the caulk.  However, properly removing caulk is very expensive.

“It’s a huge disincentive for building owners,” said Robert Herrick of Harvard’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?”

Herrick said Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts saw about $2 million project for window replacement and renovation increase to $5 million after engineers tested caulk and found PCBs.

A Bronx, N.Y. mother sued New York City earlier this month over PCBs in caulk at her daughter’s public school.

New York City schools spokeswoman Ann Forte did not comment on the lawsuit but did say that the school system is “engaged in positive and productive discussions with EPA to develop and agree on a plan to address PCBs in New York City schools.”

Federal officials said the issue was serious, but there is not need to be alarmed. 

PCBs, or also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemicals that were widely used in construction and electrical materials before they were banned 30 years ago.  It was used in caulk to make it more flexible.

PCBs can hurt the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems, as well as cause cancer if they build up in the body over a long period of time.

Hundreds of the 80,000 public school buildings across the country were built between 1950 and 1970.

A 10-year-old Education Department report said the average building was 40 years old, and the Rebuild America’s Schools coalition says that two-thirds of schools have an environmental problem like asbestos or radon gas, lead in water and paint, and leaking underground storage tanks.

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