PCBs pose threat in thou­sands of schools, ac­tivists warn

The Washington Post - - POWERPOST - BY EMMA BROWN emma.brown@wash­post.com

Poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls, or PCBs, are in­dus­trial chem­i­cals so toxic that Con­gress banned them 40 years ago. Re­search has shown that they can cause a range of health con­cerns, in­clud­ing cancer and neu­ro­log­i­cal prob­lems such as de­creased IQ. And yet, be­cause they were com­monly used in build­ing ma­te­ri­als for decades, they con­tinue to con­tam­i­nate class­rooms in 13,000 to 26,000 schools na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to Har­vard re­searchers.

No one knows ex­actly how many schools are af­fected — or how many chil­dren are be­ing ex­posed to these toxic chem­i­cals — be­cause many schools don’t test for PCBs. Un­der fed­eral law, they don’t have to.

Now, ac­tivists are mount­ing a cam­paign to change that, lob­by­ing Con­gress to close what they say is a dan­ger­ous loop­hole that could be harm­ing mil­lions of chil­dren. The ef­fort comes in the af­ter­math of the wa­ter cri­sis in Flint, Mich., amid new scru­tiny of school­child­ren’s ex­po­sure to an­other toxic sub­stance for which schools are not re­quired to test: lead in drink­ing foun­tains.

“Par­ents have the right to know what their chil­dren are be­ing ex­posed to in school,” said Jen­nifer deNi­cola, a par­ent in Mal­ibu, Calif., who helped lead a years­long ef­fort to rid that com­mu­nity’s schools of PCBs in win­dow caulk and other ma­te­ri­als, even­tu­ally fil­ing a law­suit against the school district.

Peo­ple can be ex­posed to the chem­i­cals when they touch con­tam­i­nated sub­stances, eat con­tam­i­nated food or breathe air con­tam­i­nated with PCB-laden dust. The caulk in Mal­ibu schools had con­cen­tra­tions of PCBs that in some in­stances were thou­sands of times higher than the fed­eral limit.

The le­gal bat­tle in that tony sea­side com­mu­nity — which ended last month when a fed­eral judge or­dered the school district to re­move PCBs from its schools by Dec. 31, 2019 — drew na­tional at­ten­tion, not least be­cause su­per­model Cindy Craw­ford pulled her chil­dren out of the school sys­tem and be­came a spokes­woman for the cause.

Schools also have grap­pled with the prob­lem else­where, in­clud­ing in New York, Mas­sachusetts and Wash­ing­ton state. A school in Hart­ford, Conn., was closed in­def­i­nitely for cleanup last year af­ter it was found to have air­borne PCB lev­els nearly 2,000 times greater than the fed­eral limit, ac­cord­ing to the Hart­ford Courant.

Now deNi­cola and Craw­ford are turn­ing their at­ten­tion to un­de­tected PCBs in schools na­tion­wide. “We need to make this a po­lit­i­cal is­sue big­ger than us,” said deNi­cola, who started the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Amer­ica Unites for Kids to ad­dress the prob­lem.

They have joined forces with the En­vi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group, a re­search and ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion that spe­cial­izes in pub­lic health. They are lob­by­ing Con­gress to make clear that the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency must re­quire schools built be­tween 1950 and 1979 — when PCBs were com­monly used not only in win­dow caulk but also in school flu­o­res­cent light­ing fix­tures, paint and floor fin­ishes — to test for con­tam­i­na­tion.

They have an ally in Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who on Wed­nes­day re­leased a re­port on the ex­tent of PCB con­tam­i­na­tion in the na­tion’s schools and called on Con­gress to pro­vide the money that schools need to test for, and re­spond to, the prob­lem. Markey also called for manda­tory PCB test­ing in schools. Ac­cord­ing to Markey’s re­port, the EPA has re­ceived 286 re­ports of PCB con­tam­i­na­tion in 22 states dur­ing the past decade, af­fect­ing thou­sands of schools.

“Right now, at the rate of cur­rent en­force­ment and in­spec­tion ac­tiv­i­ties by states and the EPA, it would take at least 32 years to in­spect schools that may have PCB-con­tain­ing caulk,” Markey said.

EPA of­fi­cials said they do not rec­om­mend in­spec­tions at all such schools be­cause a blan­ket ap­proach would not be ap­pro­pri­ate or ef­fec­tive at ev­ery school. In­stead, they rec­om­mend re­duc­ing chances of con­tam­i­na­tion by re­mov­ing PCB-based flu­o­res­cent light fix­tures, by re­mov­ing caulk and other ma­te­ri­als dur­ing planned renovation­s, and by keep­ing PCB-laden dust to a min­i­mum by mop­ping and us­ing wet rags.

That ap­proach is the most ef­fec­tive way for schools to use lim­ited re­sources to deal with po­ten­tial PCB con­tam­i­na­tion, said Jeff Morris of the EPA’s Of­fice of Pol­lu­tion Pre­ven­tion and Tox­ics. Morris also em­pha­sized that cur­rent laws and reg­u­la­tions do not give the EPA the author­ity to re­quire test­ing. “We’re not say­ing that this is a triv­ial thing at all,” he said. “It is in a lot of build­ings, it’s true.”

The Mal­ibu school district was found to have vi­o­lated the Toxic Sub­stances Con­trol Act be­cause of the il­le­gally high lev­els of PCBs in win­dow caulk. But district of­fi­cials said they had con­sis­tently com­plied with EPA guid­ance and re­quire­ments, and the judge in the case agreed.

“The district is a pub­lic agency that is fol­low­ing the law and fol­low­ing the EPA guide­lines that have been sent to us,” said Gail Pinsker, spokes­woman for the Santa Mon­ica-Mal­ibu Uni­fied School District, who added that the district is con­fi­dent its class­rooms are, and al­ways have been, safe.

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