PCBs in Schools: Know the Risks

Yahoo HealthAugust 20, 2014

Photo by Splash News

Supermodel Cindy Crawford made headlines this week after appearing on NBC’s “Today” show to raise awareness about the potential dangers of PCB, a common environmental toxin that has turned up at the Malibu high school that her children attend.

“I don’t feel 100 percent safe,” Crawford said in a “Today” show interview with NBC special correspondent Maria Shriver, according to ”Today”online. Crawford and other concerned parents at the school are keeping kids home until they are satisfied with testing results, and Crawford has even offered to foot the bill for additional testing.

The toxin in question, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), belongs to a category of manmade organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. The chemical was used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications for decades but the practice was banned in 1979. Today, the problem is that PCBs can still be found lingering in the environment as well as in buildings that predate the ban.

In the case of the Malibu school, one possible source of the contaminant is the old caulking used to seal the windows, according to the Malibu Times.

“This is not a Malibu issue,” Crawford said in the interview. “This is really an issue in a lot of older schools, and I just think the laws need to be changed.”

So what are the potential health concerns? Yahoo Health contacted Johanna Congleton, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “PCBs are associated with a number of health effects, including cancer,” she explained. “Children’s exposure is of particular concern since PCBs have been associated with learning problems and hormone disruption. Proper hormone signaling is important for normal development. …In addition, PCBs are associated with low birth weight in both people and animals.”

The website of the Environmental Protection Agency has a lot of useful information about PCBs and confirms the use of PCBs in caulk in some buildings, including schools, built between 1950 and 1980. 

"Though this is a serious issue, the potential presence of PCBs in schools and buildings should not be a cause for alarm – there are steps school administrators and building owners can take to protect students, teachers and others," said the EPA in a fact sheet about the PCBs in caulking.

The EPA also addressed the PCB issue in a 2012 report, "PCBs in School Buildings: Sources, Environmental Levels, and Exposures.”

Still, if you’re worried about indoor toxins it’s probably a good idea to take a big-picture approach: Try to identify all possible sources of contaminants.

PCBs are just part of the overall problem of potentially toxic indoor air quality, noted Veena Singla a staff scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in an interview with Yahoo Health. “We spend 70 percent of our time indoors,” she said, so understanding various sources of contaminants is important.

“It’s not unusual that PCBs would turn up at a school because they were commonly used in all kinds of building materials,” said Singla.

The main problem with PCBs is that, over time, microscopic particles can enter the air and also attach to dust particles. The same can be said for other common indoor air toxins including flame retardants and phthalates, explained Singla.

Singla said that we are mainly exposed to PCBs by breathing contaminated air and ingesting contaminated dust. Our main defense, whether it’s in school, at the office or at home, is to increase ventilation and to frequently vacuum with a HEPA filter. Frequent mopping or dusting with a damp cloth will also reduce exposure to dust.

“It’s not fair for consumers to have to clean up after the chemical industry,” said Singla, who added that one of the NRDC’s goals is to help strengthen laws and safeguards to protect people and wildlife through its Take Out Toxics campaign. “The chemical regulatory system does not provide adequate health and safety testing of chemicals before they come into the marketplace.”