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EPA suggests testing for PCBs

Says schools, other buildings may have issue

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / September 29, 2009

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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 chemicals believed to cause cancer.

The recommendation is targeted at thousands of buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1978, when polychlorinated biphenyls, widely known as PCBs, were banned. Several Massachusetts schools and colleges have recently found high levels of PCBs in caulking.

The federal agency said the danger to schoolchildren is unknown, but added that “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.

PCBs gained infamy for their use in electrical transformers that leaked the oily compounds into waterways and soil to pollute industrial sites around the country. They 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. It was also used in industrial paints and adhesives to glue items including tile flooring and cabinets.

As caulking ages, it can disintegrate into particles and vapors containing small amounts of PCBs, which can fall to the ground, coat 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 windows and construction joints of several buildings. A few months later, after finding high levels of PCBs, New Bedford High School removed adhesives, paint, and foam in two classrooms and a teacher’s room, as well as paint on a closet wall.

EPA officials said there was no cause for alarm, yet recommended that building owners test caulking if it is brittle, cracking, or deteriorating or if PCB air levels exceed EPA suggested levels. They also recommended that 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, and 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 school 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 that they avoid testing because of the financial burden. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, to get rid of 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 probable sites of PCB contamination. Eight contained caulking with PCB levels above 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,’’ Herrick said. “School districts are so financially strapped teachers are forced to bring in their own classroom supplies.’’

He said one answer would be federal legislation now pending to give school districts low-interest loans and grants to scrub PCBs from their buildings.

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.