Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have been banned in the United States since 1979, but a new study by researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that up to 14 million students in 26,000 U.S. public schools may still be exposed to the toxic industrial chemicals.
The report was published on the same day that former PCB maker and agritech giant Monsanto announced that it would set aside $280 million in PCB personal injury settlements.
Despite the ban, PCBs still persist because of their presence in building materials.
A Little Bit About Toxic PCB Chemicals
PCBs have been around since 1929, but many countries – including the U.S. – began banning them in the 1970s and ’80s because of their potential risks to human health and the environment.
The chemicals were used as insulating material in electrical equipment, such as transformers and capacitors, as well as heat transfer fluids and lubricants because they are resistant to acids and bases, as well as heat.
PCBs have also been used in a wide range of products, including plasticizers, surface coatings, inks, adhesives, flame-retardants, paints, and carbonless duplicating paper.
The PCBs in these products are easily transferred through touch, inhalation or ingestion of contaminated foods.
Potential Health Risks Posed By PCBs
Cancer: Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have categorized PCBs as probable carcinogens.
One study found that children’s risk of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia increased 2-fold when PCBs were detected in the dust of a room in which the child spent a significant amount of time.
This past June, a St. Louis Circuit Court jury ordered Monsanto, Solutia, Pharmacia, and Pfizer to pay $46.5 million to three people who alleged that the companies’ mishandling of PCBs had caused them cancer.
Immunity: PCBs suppress the immune system and thyroid function.
The Harvard report finds that anywhere from 13,000 to 26,000 public schools in the United States could be plagued by lingering PCBs. That’s quite a range, but no one knows the exact number. It’s the researchers’ best guess.
Many schools don’t test for PCBs, and such testing is not required under federal law. Activists want that to change, so they’ve begun lobbying Congress to close a dangerous loophole that they say could be putting millions of children’s lives at stake.
Jennifer deNicola, a parent in Malibu, California, who helped lead a years-long effort to rid that community’s schools of PCBs in window caulk and other materials, eventually filing a lawsuit against the school district, says:
“Parents have the right to know what their children are being exposed to in school.”
Parents are taking action
The caulk in the posh Malibu schools had concentrations of PCBs that in some instances were thousands of times higher than the federal limit. Supermodel and businesswoman Cindy Crawford even pulled her children out of the schools over the issue, and became a spokesperson for the cause.
A federal judge last month ordered the school district to remove PCBs from its schools by December 31, 2019.
Fortunately, activists have an ally.
On 5 October 2016, Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, released a report on the extent of the problem, and called on Congress to provide money that would allow schools to test for the toxins. He is also calling on such testing to be mandatory.
And should unsafe levels of PCBs be detected in a school, Markey wants parents to be notified immediately.
Lastly, the lawmaker is calling for the EPA to begin urging inspections of schools built or renovated prior to PCBs being banned.
According to Markey’s report, 286 reports have been submitted to the EPA concerning PCB contamination in 22 states during the past decade, affecting thousands of schools. But because testing is random and spotty, those reports likely represent just a fraction of the schools affected by PCB contamination.
The report states:
“Absent a requirement to test or inspect schools for PCB contamination, the discovery of PCB hazards in schools occurs by chance.”
Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, which also analyzed the EPA data the Markey report was based on, says:
“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.
There needs to be a duty to look for PCBs just like there is a duty to look for asbestos.”
She went on to say:
“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.”
What All Parents Should Do
Schools must keep PCB levels below the threshold of 100 to 600 nanograms per cubic meter. According to the EPA, where in that range depends on the age of the students. Benesh says that when levels exceed that limit, schools have a duty to inform parents.
But parents can be proactive by asking a few key questions:
- Was the school built or retrofitted between 1950 and 1979? That is the period in which school building materials contained Monsanto-made PCBs.
- Has the school district done testing, and is there a management plan?
- Has the school coordinated with the 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.”