Dangerous Monsanto Chemical Remains in Thousands of Schools: Solving the Problem on a National Level
Polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, are toxic chemicals that were manufactured by Monsanto and used in a range of industrial applications until they were banned by Congress under the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976. PCBs can cause cancer and also pose multiple other health risks affecting the immune, endocrine, reproductive and neurological systems.
PCBs were widely used in schools built between 1950 and the late 1970s. They served as a plasticizer in caulk and heat conductors for fluorescent light fixtures. PCBs are notoriously difficult to contain and they can leach from caulking and fixtures into other building materials and soil.
The 1976 ban prohibited the manufacture of PCBs and phased out most uses, except in “totally enclosed equipment” by 1979. Current federal regulations make it unlawful to continue using any materials, such as caulk, with PCBs in concentrations exceeding 50 parts per million. Fluorescent light ballasts that contained PCBs were part of an excluded list of PCB uses since they were seen to be “totally enclosed.” However, these old ballasts have now exceeded their useful life and are failing, potentially causing PCBs to leak out and expose kids.
If a school’s caulk is tested and contains more than 50 parts per million of PCBs, the school administration has a legal obligation to remove it and any contaminated surfaces. However, the law does not require schools to test or monitor for PCBs. To adequately protect schoolchildren and personnel, inspections and testing of schools at risk for PCB hazards should be mandatory.
If PCBs are found in one part of a school, school officials must presume that the entire school also has PCB-laden materials. They must order comprehensive testing to characterize the extent of the problem. In the absence of a federal mandate, the EPA and state public health agencies should be encouraging inspections of all schools built or retrofitted between 1950 and the late 1970s. The EPA must improve its efforts to communicate this obligation to test to local education agencies, school districts and schools with potential PCB hazards.
The EPA acknowledges that all fluorescent light fixtures made with PCBs are past their designated life spans and are at heightened risks of leaking or rupturing. It recommends that these fixtures be replaced, but it does not require schools to do so. The EPA has begun a rule-change process to make it illegal for schools to continue using light fixtures with PCBs. The agency should quickly conclude this process, update its regulations and mandate an immediate inspection of fluorescent light fixtures in schools and quickly remove those with PCBs.
In addition, the EPA should require that schools characterize all building materials containing PCBs and create detailed plans before starting a PCB remediation project. These plans should account for remediation of secondary sources of PCBs such as paint, masonry and soil that may have been contaminated by leached PCBs. Schools should also have plans to monitor buildings and grounds regularly for any residual PCB hazards after remediation.
The EPA should require that the results of testing and plans to remediate are shared with parents. The agency should coordinate with its regional offices so they can work together to make sure all the nation’s schoolchildren are protected from PCBs.