- About us
- Be Safe
- Children’s Environmental Health Program
- Prevent Fracking Harms
- Focus on Schools
PCBs in Schools
Take Action on PCB Hazards in Schools
PCBs in Schools
In 2008, PCBs were found in New York City public schools. At first, PCBs were found in caulking around the window sills and door frames and then tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unexpectedly found PCBs in fluorescent light fixtures. Extremely elevated levels of PCBs were found in the lighting fixture ballasts, and EPA found elevated levels of PCBs in classroom air that were 100, sometimes 1,000 times higher, than the federal standard of 50 parts per million (ppm). This is extremely dangerous because PCBs are classified as a probable human carcinogen. The NYC Department of Education estimates that over 770 schools in New York City could have problems with PCBs lights degrading, evaporating in the air and causing poor indoor air quality. But it is not just a New York City problem. EPA discovered that any school in America with light fixtures that were installed before 1979 contain PCBs. These PCB exposures pose a hazard to children and staff in a school environment because PCBs can impair children’s ability to learn.
For more information, read CHEJ’s The Problem of PCBs in Schools Fact Sheet.
What are PCBs?
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals used as insulation, coolants, and other electrical equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics, and rubber products; and in surface coating, sealants, caulking compounds, fire retardants, glues, inks, pesticides, and carbonless copy paper. Products made before 1977 may still contain PCBs, including old fluorescent lights, electrical devices, caulking, and hydraulic oils. Production of PCBs was stopped in 1977 and the federal government banned PCBs in 1979 because of its harmful impact on the environment and human health. PCBs are a probable human carcinogen and are known to cause cancer in animals.
How can PCBs affect your health?
In old lighting fixtures made before 1979, PCB-contaminated oil will eventually leak onto nearby surfaces, such as student’s desks, or it will evaporate into the air causing poor indoor air quality. Window and door caulking also can contain PCBs and poses a similar risk of degradation over time. Another route of exposure is if the PCB-contaminated caulking has chipped and its residue falls on the soil, where it can pose health risks for decades. If students or school personnel are exposed to PCBs, it can pose short and long-term health effects. Short-term exposure to PCBs can irritate and burn the eyes, lungs, nose, and throat. Long-term exposure may have serious effects on the liver, immune system, endocrine system, reproductive system, and thyroid hormone levels, which could affect normal growth and development such as IQ and behavior. In addition, PCBs causes an increased risk of cancer as it is classified as a probable carcinogen. PCBs are also an extremely persistent chemical that remains in the environment for decades.
For more information, read CHEJ’s PCBs Health Effects Fact Sheet.
Should you worry about your child’s school?
Was your child’s school built or renovated prior to 1979?
- To learn if your child’s school could be affected by PCB’s, contact the school’s Principal or local school district to inquire about the age of the school and if it has undergone renovations.
- Older school building built prior to 1979 could have caulking and fluorescent light fixtures that contain PCBs. Find out if caulking around window sills and doors and light fixtures have been removed or replaced after 1979.
- If caulking and light fixtures have not been replaced, contact the school’s principal to request replacement of these potential hazardous materials and provide them with CHEJ’s packet of fact sheets (coming soon) and information from EPA’s website (see Resource List below).
How can you and your child limit exposure?
If you suspect caulking or light fixtures contain PCBs:
- Do not touch surfaces or objects that PCBs oil has leaked onto, or caulking that may contain PCBs.
- Do not touch soil that many contain PCBs. Wipe and remove shoes after contact with contaminated soil from outside. Wash hands immediately if you came into contact with soil.
- Wash hands and other objects often that may have been exposed to PCBs.
- Improve ventilation by opening windows or adding exhaust fans.
What Are the Cost Savings Associated with Replacing Fixtures?
Replacement of existing PCB-containing lighting fixtures with new high efficiency lighting will result in energy cost savings that will repay the investment in new lighting. The cost of replacing these fixtures can typically be recouped in less than seven years depending upon hours of operation and local energy costs. Detailed information on the savings and information on funding that may be available for new lighting can be found on the Energy Star website or checkout this table that has a state by state breakdown of financial incentives for energy efficiency.
For more information, read CHEJ’s Solutions to Remove School Lights Containing PCBs Fact Sheet.
- CHEJ’s Children’s Environmental Health Program webpage provides more information on children’s environmental health issues.
- CHEJ’s Children’s Environmental Health Program’s Back to School Environmental Checklist helps you to assess your school’s environment.
- CHEJ’s Be Safe webpage provides resources on model precautionary policies and cleanup programs.
- EPA’s webpage on PCBs in Caulk in Older Buildings is a resource to learn more about PCBs in caulk and how to deal with the problem.
- EPA’s guide on Proper Maintenance, Removal, and Disposal of PCB-Containing Fluorescent Light Ballasts: A Guide for School Administrators and Maintenance Personnel is a resource to learn more about PCBs in light fixtures and how to
deal with the problem.
- EPA Region 2’s PowerPoint presentation: PCBs in Lighting Fixtures in NYC Schools gives an overview of the problem of PCBs in NYC public schools and how officials are planning to handle situation. It can be used to educate others about potential problem in your school.
- EPA’s fact sheet on PCBs in Schools is a tool you can use to educate people about PCBs. There is a checklist and a coloring exercise to teach kids how to identify where PCBs may be located.
- New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s NYC PCB Campaign information: Take a look at what lawyers in New York are doing to address PCB contamination problem in NYC public schools.
- New York Communities for Change’s NYC PCB Campaign information: Take a look at what activists in New York are doing to address PCB contamination problem in NYC public schools.
- New Jersey Department of Education PCB memorandum: The memo alerts school districts about the PCB threat in schools and advises how to proceed. You can share this memo with your local school district as an example of what other states are doing to address problem.
- Serum PCB levels and congener profiles among teachers in PCB-containing schools: This pilot study researched how staff are affected by PCB exposure.
- Table provides a snapshot of government and utility financial incentives that promote energy efficiency in the United States. This table memo provides information on how to find resources to pay for PCB light fixture replacements with energy efficient lighting.
- Pre- and postnatal polychlorinated biphenylconcentrations and longitudinal measures of thymus volume in infants (study). Prenatal and early life exposure to high levels of PCBs is associated with a smaller immune organ – the thymus – at birth and at 6-months-old finds a study that is one of the first to identify this anomaly in infants.