Across the US, toxic chemicals called PCBs linger in schools and daycare centers — over 40 years after they were banned due to severe health concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t taking action due to a lack of funding and political pressure, including pushback from the current presidential administration.
PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemical compounds manufactured by agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto. They were used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979, after it was discovered they could cause long-term risk of cancer, immune and reproductive system impairment and learning problems.
However, by then PCBs were already in most equipment, adhesives, and lighting fixtures in schools, hospitals, homes, and offices. PCBs had built up in the environment, too — and since most PCB exposure is believed to come from diet, like contaminated fish, the EPA focused on removing the chemicals from waterways and toxic waste sites. Apparently, nobody thought about schools.
7 News WWNY reported that millions of fluorescent light ballasts containing PCBs still remain in the places where children go every day, 40 years after the chemicals were banned. Many older buildings also have caulk, ceiling tiles, floor adhesives and paint made with PCBs, at levels well above the legal limit.
An EPA rule that would have required schools and daycares to remove PCB-containing light fixtures was in the works during the Obama administration, but it was shut down by President Donald Trump within days of his inauguration. Right now, the EPA only has voluntary guidelines, which limit how much “indoor air” children can take in without causing health problems.
Even though the EPA has found that the chemicals can move from building materials into the air and dust, where they can be inhaled or ingested and then absorbed by other surfaces, the agency does not require schools to test for PCBs. Very few schools do, because the cleanup is expensive, especially if the school is already underfunded.
In Malibu, California, wealthy parents including model Cindy Crawford sued their school district to force them to remove PCBs in schools after caulk tests found levels up to 11,000 times above the legal limit. The district had to take action, eventually tearing down a middle school.
But in poorer neighborhoods, like Hartford, Connecticut, parents can’t afford to take that kind of action. When PCBs were found in the local elementary and middle schools, the largely low-income African American community could not afford to remove them, and the schools were permanently closed. The city has sued Monsanto and a caulk manufacturer to try to recover the costs and rebuild.
But Monsanto denies responsibility. The company is facing lawsuits from several school districts nationwide, but Monsanto says they did not manufacture the building materials that contain PCBs. Many school districts have invested in replacing their contaminated light fixtures, but urban, rural and low-income districts with older buildings can’t afford to do so, especially if the EPA won’t get involved.
“The debate was never based on science and health. It was ‘We don’t want the grief from schools, and it’s a lot of work and we have other priorities,'” former EPA administrator Judith Enck told 7 News. The EPA estimated in 2015 that there were still 2.6 million PCB-containing fixtures in schools and a half-million in daycares. What’s worse, as much as 70% were likely leaking.
But proving PCBs are harmful to health is almost impossible, because people are affected differently, problems can take years to develop, and not everyone who’s exposed will get sick. Still, kids in dozens of different school districts are reporting symptoms, from headaches and nausea to early-onset puberty. Monsanto still says there is no proof PCBs cause significant health problems — but because children are more vulnerable, it’s still necessary to get PCBs out of schools.
“Continued exposure begins to chisel away at the margin of safety,” former EPA toxicologist Mark Maddaloni told 7 News. Recent studies have found that schools can have much higher levels of PCBs than food and even toxic waste sites — so if kids’ health is on the line, schools need to be the first priority.