By Beth Daley
The US Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that owners of older buildings – including schools – test brittle, aging masonry and window caulking for high levels of likely cancer-causing chemicals.
The recommendations are targeted at thousands of buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1978, when polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were banned. Several Massachusetts schools and colleges have recently found high levels of PCBs in caulking.
Scott Richards, director of Facilities at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass. stands in front of one of many buildings on campus that were built in the 1970s with caulk high in PCBs (Stephen Rose for The Boston Globe)
The federal agency said the danger to schoolchildren is unknown but “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,’’ said EPA administrator Lisa. P. Jackson.
The oily PCBs gained infamy for their use in electrical transformers that are present at many of the nation’s filthiest industrial sites. But the oily chemicals were also mixed into caulking to make it rubbery when it was applied to interior and exterior windows, doors and bricks, and used in industrial paints and adhesives to glue everything from tile flooring to cabinets.
As caulking ages, public health researchers have found, they can break down into particles and vapors containing small amounts of PCBs, which can fall to the ground, dust windowsills, and infiltrate a building’s ventilation system. This spring, Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield voluntarily tested its caulking and discovered high levels of PCBs on exterior window and construction joints of several buildings. After discovering high levels of PCBs, New Bedford High School this summer removed adhesives, paint and foam in two classrooms and a teacher’s room and paint on a closet wall.
EPA officials said there was no cause for alarm, yet said building owners should test caulking if it is brittle, cracking or deteriorating or if PCB air levels exceed EPA suggested public health levels. They also recommended building owners do the following: Clean air ducts, improve ventilation by opening windows, clean rooms frequently to reduce dust, use vacuums with high efficiency particulate air filters, wash hands with soap and water often, particularly before eating and drinking.
PCB in caulking is an emerging issue in the country and few schools or industrial buildings, where the caulking was used the most, have been tested.
While the EPA now recommends testing for PCBs, it is not required. Yet the agency requires caulking or other material to be removed if it contains levels about 50 parts per million. In Massachusetts, some caulking has been found at 5,000 parts per million or more. In New York, some caulking was found to contain 200,000 parts per million.
Many school administrators in New England, faced with dwindling budgets, acknowledged privately to the Globe in recent months they avoid testing to avoid the financial burden. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – or more – to get rid of the PCBs.
“This is a good start,’’ said Robert Herrick, senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health. In 2004, he tested 24 buildings in Greater Boston that a bricklayer identified as likely candidates for PCB contamination. Eight contained caulking with PCB levels about 50 parts per million.
“But it doesn’t deal with the underlying reality that if you follow the guidance and test for it, you have to remove it. School districts are so financially strapped teachers are forced to bring in their own classroom supplies," said Herrick. He said an answer would be to pass a federal bill now pending to give schools low-interest loans and grants to scrub PCBs from their school.
The health danger caused by the release of PCBs from caulking remains unclear. This family of chemicals includes more than 200 compounds, and they vary in how they affect people. An emerging body of research in laboratory animals suggests the PCBs that can be released from caulking - lighter in weight and less studied than the ones shown to cause cancer - might cause developmental and neurological problems, but the findings are not definitive.