Toxic Chemicals Are in Schools, and No One Knows How Much

A new report shows that up to 30 percent of school-age kids are exposed to hazardous PCBs.
(Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
Oct 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

The lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought fresh scrutiny to the presence of the metal in school drinking fountains coast to coast. But another set of toxic industrial chemicals may be lurking in America’s schools—and as with lead, federal law doesn’t require schools to test for them.

A report released Wednesday shows that nearly 14 million children nationwide—30 percent of the school-age population—may be exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, when they go to school. The chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, learning deficits, decreased thyroid hormone function, and neurological damage, may be in as many as 26,000 K–12 schools, according to the report, which was produced by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.–based research organization, and the office of Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.

“That number comes by looking back at those periods of time where public schools were most extensively built. About 60 percent of the schools were built from 1950 to the early ’80s, the time when PCBs were most commonly used in building materials,” Robert Herrick, a researcher at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “It’s a reasonable estimate. There’s never been a national survey.”

Manufactured by Monsanto from the 1920s to the 1970s, the chemicals were widely used in building materials—including paints, caulks, and fluorescent light fixtures—before being banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1979. As those materials age, PCBs leak out of them, resulting in human exposure through breathing contaminated air or touching contaminated dust.

RELATED: The Toxic Schools of Malibu…and New York…and Lexington, Mass.,…and Maybe Your Town Too

A group of citizens filed a lawsuit against the Santa Monica–Malibu Unified School District in Los Angeles County in 2015 after PCBs were discovered in a high school and an elementary school in Malibu three years ago. In early September, a federal judge ruled that the district must remove all PCBs from the two schools by the end of 2019.

“Schools do not test for PCB hazards and are not required to do so. When it is found, no one has to report it to the EPA,” Markey said during the conference call. “Many of the cases the EPA provided to my office were found by chance after concerns were raised by parents or after a group of individuals experienced similar health problems. This was the case in Malibu.”

“To put it plainly, we have no real idea how many students are being exposed to PCBs in their classroom each and every day,” Markey said. “There is inconsistent record keeping of PCB hazards at the EPA.”

According to the report, over the past decade 286 schools in 20 states have reported the presence of PCBs on campus to the EPA. Even if schools know their buildings contain the chemicals, districts nationwide continue to struggle financially, and most lack the funds necessary to do anything about it.

The report calls on Congress to provide federal funding for dealing with the contaminant in schools nationwide. It could cost as much as $52 billion to pay for nationwide mandatory testing and replacement of building materials that contain PCBs, Markey said. Other recommendations include developing a consistent record keeping system within the EPA, developing guidelines for notifying parents of contaminated schools, and surveying schools across the country to get a firmer number on how many are affected.

“At the rate of current enforcement, and inspection activities by states and the EPA, it would take 32 years to inspect schools that may have PCB containing caulk and even longer to inspect for all PCBs,” Markey said. “It’s time to finally reckon with this PCB legacy that we are left with and to do so in a way that protects the health of kids across our country.”