In the News: NYC Pilot Study on PCBs in Schools In 2013, New York City (NYC) completed a pilot study with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to measure indoor polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in NYC school buildings, identify PCB containing caulk and other potential PCB sources and determine the most effective ways to reduce exposures. Results of the 3-year pilot study identified lighting ballasts in older fluorescent lighting fixtures, in addition to caulk, as a source of PCBs in the pilot school buildings. Old lighting ballasts may contain PCB oil and as the ballasts age the PCB oil can leak onto nearby surfaces or produce vapors in the air. The pilot study showed that the replacement of PCB lighting ballasts and associated fixtures was a successful remedial measure for lowering PCB levels in indoor air where concentrations exceeded the US EPA air guidance values. Implementation of Best Management Practices, including proper ventilation and routine cleaning and maintenance, also helped reduce indoor PCB levels. Information about the pilot study can be found on the NYC Department of Education website .
PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) are a group of manmade chemicals. PCBs were widely used in building materials and electrical products in the past. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the manufacturing and certain uses of PCBs in 1978, but buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1978 may still have building materials and electrical products that contain PCBs. Examples of products that may contain PCBs include caulk, paint, glues, plastics, fluorescent lighting ballasts, transformers and capacitors.
PCBs continue to be widespread in our soil, air, water and food because of past use and disposal. PCBs break down very slowly and can remain in the environment for a long time. Almost everyone has been exposed to PCBs because of the widespread presence of PCBs in the environment. Most people have some PCBs in their bodies. In general, however, PCB levels in people have been going down since they were banned.
Laboratory tests can measure PCB levels in blood, fat tissue and breast milk. These tests are useful for research but they cannot determine when, where, or for how long a person was exposed to PCBs. Nor can they determine the likelihood of adverse health effects from PCB exposure.
The potential for health effects from PCBs, as with other chemicals, depend on how much, how often, and how long someone is exposed. Existing scientific studies have not shown PCB exposures from building materials to cause health effects in building occupants. While these studies are limited, they included buildings that generally have much higher levels than those seen in the pilot schools.
Although high-dose exposure to PCBs may cause chloracne, a rash-like condition, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headaches and dizziness, severe symptoms like these have only been seen among people with exposure to large amounts of PCBs in the workplace or following accidental consumption.
There is no immediate health concern and health effects from long term exposure to the air in school buildings are unlikely to occur at the PCB levels seen in the NYC schools. To better understand air levels in schools, EPA has developed air guidance levels that are very protective of human health. These levels contain a wide margin of safety and include consideration of sensitive subpopulations and a lifetime of exposure. Air results from the NYC pilot study in schools have been within the margin of safety. (Information about the air guidance levels can be found on the EPA website (PDF)).
Potential exposures to PCBs should be minimized. Proper cleaning and building maintenance can minimize exposure to PCBs from building materials. Below are some practical tips.
Building managers and maintenance staff should:
General precautions for teachers, students, parents and caregivers:
To prevent PCB exposure, all repairs and renovations should be conducted by trained maintenance workers or an experienced contractor using safe work practices. Proper cleaning methods should be used to minimize potential exposure to PCBs after repairs are completed.
PCB-containing caulk can contaminate surrounding surfaces if it is removed and discarded improperly. Any repair that will disturb old caulk (e.g. removing or replacing a window) should be done by trained workers. Schools should follow The New York State Education Department's Protocol for Addressing Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Caulking Materials in School Buildings . The protocol offers guidance on testing caulk and soil, as well as best practices for abatement. This guidance may also be useful for non-school buildings.
PCB-containing lighting ballasts that are damaged can leak onto surrounding surfaces or produce vapors in the air. For more information on the handling and disposal of lighting ballasts, see the US Environmental Protection Agency's guide for the proper maintenance, removal, and disposal of PCB-containing fluorescent lighting ballasts.
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