Toxic PCBs linger in schools; EPA, lawmakers fail to act

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

MONROE, Wash. (AP) — At first, teachers at Sky Valley Education Center simply evacuated students and used fans to clear the air when the fluorescent lights caught fire or smoked with noxious fumes. When black oil dripped onto desks and floors, they caught leaks with a bucket and duct-taped oilstained carpets.

Then came the tests that confirmed their suspicions about the light ballasts.

“Sure enough ... it was PCB oil,” said Cynthia Yost, who was among teachers who sent pieces of carpet and classroom air filters to a lab. Tests found elevated levels of the toxic chemicals, used as coolant in the decades-old ballasts that regulated electrical current to the lamps.

Millions of fluorescent light ballasts containing PCBs probably remain in schools and day care centers across the U.S. four decades after the chemicals were banned over concerns that they could cause cancer and other illnesses. Many older buildings also have caulk, ceiling tiles, floor adhesives and paint made with PCBs, which sometimes have been found at levels far higher than allowed by law.

Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has not attempted to determine the scope of PCB contamination or assess potential health risks, in large part because of lack of funding, political pressure and pushback from industry and education groups, according to dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of documents examined by The Associated Press.

Members of Congress who promised three years ago to find money to help address PCBs and other environmental problems in the nation’s schools never introduced legislation.

And an EPA rule that would have required schools and day cares to remove PCB-containing ballasts moved slowly under the Obama administration, then was quashed by President Donald Trump within days of his inauguration.

That was the final straw for Tom Simons, a former EPA regulator who worked for years on the rule and said getting rid of ballasts was the least the EPA could do to protect children.

“We thought it was a nobrainer: There are millions out there. These things are smoking and dripping, so let’s put this through,” said Simons, who retired shortly after Trump took office.

For decades, the presence of PCBs in schools flew under the radar.

States, cities and environmental agencies focused on removing them from lakes, rivers and toxic waste sites because most exposure to PCBs is believed to come from people’s diet, including fish from contaminated waterways, and because PCBs do not break down easily. Studies have linked them to increased long-term risk of cancer, immune and reproductive system impairment and learning problems.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are mixtures of compounds manufactured by Monsanto Co. and widely used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979.

By then they were in transformers, air conditioners, adhesives, carbonless copy paper and billions of fluorescent light ballasts in schools, hospitals, homes, offices and commercial and industrial buildings. They also were ubiquitous in the environment and building up in human bodies.

Nobody worried about schools.

Then a 2004 study by Harvard health professor Robert Herrick identified the widespread use of PCBs as a plasticizer in caulk in schools built before 1980, estimating that as many as 14 million students and 26,000 schools could be affected. The EPA had not been aware of its use in caulk before then, Simons said.

The EPA later found that the chemicals can move from building materials into the air and dust, where they can be inhaled or ingested. They also can be absorbed by walls and other surfaces as an ongoing source of exposure.

Regulators also discovered that old fluorescent light ballasts remained a potentially widespread source of PCB contamination. The EPA had allowed the ballasts to remain in use because chemicals were in enclosed capacitors that experts thought would last only about 12 years. But it turns out they can last a half century or longer, said Simons.

The older they are, the more likely ballasts will leak, catch fire or smoke. And that has happened repeatedly in schools, office buildings, restaurants and factories in recent years, according to reports reviewed by the AP.

But the EPA has mostly voluntary guidelines, including recommended indoor air limits for PCBs that it says should protect children from health problems.

The agency does not require — or encourage — schools to test for PCBs, so few do. If they are found in materials such as caulk, schools could be forced to undertake expensive cleanups when many are struggling to keep basic infrastructure intact and meet educational needs. Drawing attention to the issue also risks alarming parents.

PCBs are illegal in building materials in concentrations exceeding 50 parts per million — a threshold set by the EPA decades ago based on how much contaminated material could affordably be removed rather than health risks.

Rather than fostering “a very confusing and fearful situation,” the EPA should recommend that schools test classroom air for PCBs, then identify and address specific sources if the results are elevated, said Keri Hornbuckle, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Iowa and one of the nation’s top researchers of PCBs in schools.

“There is a good reason PCBs were banned, so ... let’s remove the worst cases and where (kids) are most vulnerable and have the highest exposure,” she said. “But you have to have the data.”

Whether PCBs are addressed often is determined by ZIP code.

In California’s wealthy Santa Monica-Malibu School District, parents, including model Cindy Crawford, sued to force the district to address PCBs after tests of caulk found levels up to 11,000 times the 50 ppm threshold. The district ultimately agreed to get rid of PCBs. It has torn down a middle school and continues to remove them from other buildings.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the ending was far different. John C. Clark Elementary and Middle School, in a largely low-income African American neighborhood, was permanently closed in 2015 after PCBs were found and the city could not afford to remove them. The city has sued Monsanto and a company that manufactured caulk to recover the costs.

“It was the crown jewel of the neighborhood,” Steven Harris, a former city council member and grandfather, said as he walked the deserted school grounds. “Our school board is doing the best they can. The reality is we don’t have a lot of money. And it’s going to take money to fix this problem.”

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