PCBs in School Classrooms

This is a reminder that plenty ofballasts using PCB still exist and that their failure often dumps PCBs into theatmosphere of the building.  The deviceis typically removed quickly, but exposure is common.   To be fair, all buildings should now beinspected for remaining obsolete ballasts and transformers that use PCBs.  They are all long past replacement dates andare all waiting to fail only for replacement. There remains no good reason for them to be there.

The likelihood of catastrophicexposure is low, except for the chap tasked for their removal when they dofail.  No one has done a study onmaintenance men for PCB exposure and their assorted ailments.

As this item makes clear, thereal and present danger is to a fetus in the womb.  Yet later dangers may simply be unlooked for.  If you do not ask you do not know.  That applies to a host of chemicals thatfarmers in particular get exposed to.  Wehave little reason to trust the self serving research that came from thecompanies who market these products.

This coverage applies to allschools everywhere and is something everyone should be awake to.  Simply asking about the last time allballasts were replaced may be enough to complete the recycling of the oldballasts.

PCBs in School Classrooms Q&A:

February 7, 2011, 1:48 PM

Environmental Protection AgencyA ballast for a fluorescent lightingfixture that burst unexpectedly.

As I reportedlast week, many parents in New York City are worried about the presence of the chemicalsknown as PCBs in light fixtures and caulking in school buildings. The latest spot inspection bythe federal Environmental Protection Agency — on Jan. 29 at Public School 68 inthe Bronx –- turned up lighting ballasts that were leaking PCBs above theregulatory level of 50 parts per million in 10 of 13 samples taken, the agencyannounced Monday. Over the past several weeks, the E.P.A. found similarcontamination at all three other city schools that it inspected, too.

For our Green blog readers, we submitted written questions to twoexperts at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan about any health risks faced bystudents and teachers.

The following responses, edited for brevity, were provided by Dr. MaidaP. Galvez, an associate professor in the school’s Department of PreventiveMedicine and Pediatrics and the director of the hospital’s Region 2 PediatricEnvironmental Health Specialty Unit, and Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a professorof pediatrics who is chairman of both community medicine and the Department ofPreventive Medicine as well as the school’s dean of global health.

When did doctors awaken to the dangers of PCBs, or ploychlorinatedbiphenyls?

Medical and environmental concern about the long environmentalpersistence and possible effects on human health of PCBs first arose in the1960s and 1970s and led to a federal ban on the manufacture of PCBs that wasimposed in 1976 under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Unfortunately, PCBs hadalready become widespread in the environment by that time, and they remain withus today.

What does the research tell us about health risks?

Much research on PCBs has been conducted over the past three decades.Biomedical research on PCBs has documented that diet is today the principalsource of human exposure. For most people, contaminated fish is one importantsource of dietary exposure. Other sources of exposure include PCBs in olderbuilding materials like caulking and fluorescent light fixtures.

Fetal brain damage to babies in the womb is the most important humanhealth effect of PCB exposure. Well-conducted, highly credible epidemiologicalstudies demonstrate that babies born to mothers with elevated levels of PCBs intheir bodies have diminished intelligence, as measured by decreased I.Q.scores. These effects on the fetal brain appear to be permanent andirreversible.

Children and adults are much less sensitive to PCBs than unbornchildren.

Many parents are fretting about the discovery of light fixtures inschools that are leaking PCBs. What would you tell people who fear that theirchildren will suffer health effects from exposure to these toxic chemicals?

Now that PCBs have been discovered in leaking light fixtures inschools, it is clear that faulty fixtures need to be removed to prevent furtherexposure of children, teachers and other school staff. But this situation isnot a medical emergency.

PCBs at the levels found in schools in New York City today will not make any childor any teacher acutely ill. There is no need for panic. There is time tomeasure, evaluate and take appropriately focused, intelligent preventiveaction. But there is also no excuse for delay in taking action. The goal is tokeep environmental exposures low to minimize risk.

Ensuring proper ventilation is another important measure that canreduce exposures to PCBs and improve other aspects of indoor air quality issuesin classrooms. Ensuring adequate facilities and time for hand washing —especially before eating — is another important measure that can reduceexposures to PCBs.

How much exposure would start worrying you?

We are most concerned about exposures to pregnant teachers and otheradult women of childbearing age in the schools because exposures to even lowlevels of toxic chemicals during pregnancy have been shown to have thepotential to cause injury to the developing fetal brain. There are no safethresholds for chemical exposure during pregnancy.

“Fetal brain damage to babies in the womb is the most important humanhealth effect of PCB exposure.”

I understand that it is difficult to provide certainty about any healthrisks, but is there anything that makes people susceptible to developing adisease because of exposure to PCBs? Is it related to weight? Age? Preschoolstudents versus elementary or high school students?

Unborn children in the mother’s womb are the group within thepopulation at greatest risk of injury for the reasons detailed above. Youngchildren may be at increased risk of exposure to PCBs because ofage-appropriate hand-to-mouth behaviors. The air-level guidelines set by theE.P.A. take these factors into account and are more protective for youngerclasses than older ones.

What can parents do to protect their children?

To avoid exposure, parents can familiarize themselves with sources androutes by which PCBs enter the human body. Diet is the most important of theseexposure sources, and therefore it is especially important to avoid eatingcontaminated fish. Parents can check local fish advisories and followguidelines on recommended fish intake. This is especially important forpregnant women and young children.

Parents can also learn what products contain PCBs. If they findPCB-containing products in their homes like old electrical equipment, theyshould properly dispose of it and clean up spills or leaks immediately. Whenthey are in doubt about how to dispose of such equipment, they should contactthe city’s Department of Health or the E.P.A.

Parents can advocate for regular inspections and proper maintenance of
existing fluorescent light fixtures in schools. Prompt cleanup of PCB spillsand replacement of faulty equipment when possible will minimize children’sexposures to PCB containing materials. This type of work should be done whenchildren are not present in the building.

On a national level, advocating for reforms is key to this issue. Wecannot continue, as we have for too long in the past, to allow chemicals to beplaced in the environment only to wonder decades later whether there is apotential for harm to human health, especially for vulnerable populationsincluding pregnant women and young children. Remember, PCBs are just one ofmany potentiallyconcerning chemicals used widely.

Some parents in Staten Island kepttheir children at home until the city replaced the light fixtures. Was thissensible or an overreaction, from your point of view?

“We cannot continue, as we have for too long in the past, to allowchemicals to be placed in the environment only to wonder decades later whetherthere is a potential for harm to human health.”
It’s often very difficult for parents to know what to do as thesesituations unfold. The take-home message for parents is that in conducting apilot study, New York Cityis one of the first school districts in the country to address PCBs in theclassroom.

PCBs at the levels found in schools in New York City today will not make any childor any teacher acutely ill. In fact, compared with air levels reported in someother studies, air levels reported in NYC schools have been quite low.Therefore, in this particular instance we would say certainly send your child toschool. The benefits of going to school far outweigh any risk from PCBs in theschool environment.

Are there other more general health risks related to attending publicschool in New York City?

It can be very challenging for schools to decide which environmentalconcern deserves top priority and often requires a school-by-school assessment.The E.P.A.’s Tools for SchoolsAction Kit, available at , can help schools assess indoor air quality issuesand ensure a healthy environment in school buildings.

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