There's a synthetic chemical that's virtually everywhere. Scientists have found it in the blood of polar bears, thousands of miles from any known possible source. It’s found in fish throughout the world. It’s found in old caulk, fluorescent light ballasts, electrical transformers, mining equipment, and even carbonless copy paper.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, rarely break down in nature. The chemical travels through water and air, sticks to sediment, and is ingested by just about anyone who eats meat.
It’s estimated that just about every human being in the world has some level of PCBs in his or her body.
A WNPR investigation found that roughly two-thirds of Connecticut’s public schools could be contaminated with PCBs, but there are no state or federal requirements to test for the chemical, which was widely used in mid-century construction projects.
Many schools are likely contaminated, but districts throughout the state have never tested for the toxin, leaving teachers and students susceptible to exposure.
Examining the Health Risks of PCBs
Exposure to PCBs in schools is difficult to link to any specific illness, according to Brian Toal, an epidemiologist with the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
“The general thought is that most likely, teachers and children in schools probably would not see any effects even if [federal PCB limits] are exceeded,” Toal said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that most people are exposed to the substance through food. Airborne PCBs are of concern in schools, but these are chemically different from their ingested relatives – they don’t last as long in the body.
PCBs are found in outdoor air in most cities and near some waste sites, but studies have shown that building interiors can have PCBs in the air and dust at much higher levels.
“If you have a continued source of exposure -- which you would if you’re in a school or if you’re living next to a contaminated site -- that can cause diseases,” said Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany.
One study from the University of Albany found that a population of Akwesasne Mohawks with high levels of airborne PCBs in their blood were more likely to develop diabetes. Another study found that airborne PCBs may have affected otherwise healthy adults living along the Hudson River, who experienced memory and cognitive problems.
Acute symptoms from airborne PCBs include skin rashes, liver damage, and respiratory infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research has also begun to connect airborne PCBs to ailments such as thyroid and lung cancer diabetes, hypertension, ADHD, and reduced cognitive development among children, according to research by the IHE and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
For decades, George Weymouth of Billerica, Massachusetts worked as a sealant specialist in the bricklayer’s union, working with PCBs.
“I’ve got a list of problems,” he said. “I’ve got asthma, chronic bronchial stuff.”
One of Weymouth’s most frequent tasks was mixing a PCB-based oil into a gallon of caulk prior to filling joints between pieces of masonry. He would hold the can between his feet and mix in PCBs.
“Once you added the [PCBs], it became a semi-solid marshmallow fluff that you could work with,” he said.
As Weymouth mixed, the fumes would rise up his pant legs, he said, and give him itchy rashes on his feet, between his legs, and around his belt line.
Is the EPA Minimizing a Real Health Risk?
Jim Okun, an environmental consultant based in Massachusetts, said there’s too much alarm over PCBs, which aren’t as dangerous as substances like lead and asbestos.
“There is no scientific evidence that PCBs in building materials have ever hurt the health of building users,” Okun said in an email. “School funds that should be spent on education for kids [are] getting channeled to contractors who are making a fortune on PCB cleanups that don’t need to be done.”
Okun pointed to a study by Robert Golden and Renate Kimbrough that found that most studies linking PCBs to health problems are flawed and don’t account for external factors.
However, Golden's firm, ToxLogic, has connections to the chemical industry. He has frequently contributed to industry-sponsored events, such as those held by the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. This group publishes the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.
In 2002, 45 scientists accused the publication of being "an industry trade publication... masked as a peer-reviewed journal," adding that it lacked any "credible peer-review process."
Carpenter has also been accused of bias. Okun said Carpenter's work reads "like someone advancing a personal agenda, not like a scientist."
Possible agendas aside, there’s a discrepancy among agencies about whether PCBs actually cause cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the chemical as a known human carcinogen, but agencies in the U.S. list it merely as a probable carcinogen. Larry Robertson, a professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, a leading PCB research institute, said he thinks the EPA will eventually “catch up” to the international consensus.
There probably is a safe level of PCBs in the air, Robertson said, but the exact concentration remains unknown.
The “EPA [is] using some provisional reference concentration based on a number of assumptions,” Robertson said in an email. “Hopefully in the next months and years, our research will provide a more solid basis to these calculations.”
But Carpenter of the University of Albany warned that there is no safe level of airborne PCBs. “The levels of PCBs in the outdoor air around hazardous waste sites are very low, and yet we’re seeing these elevations in disease at concentrations much lower than what’s recorded in some of the schools,” he said.
Dr. Robert Herrick, a professor at Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health, said the research is there, but policymakers are not using it.
Herrick led a 2011 study that found that teachers at one school had higher levels of PCBs in their blood than the general population did. Another study by doctors in Holland found that PCBs can be transmitted through breast milk and that many Western women contain levels of PCBs that can damage their children’s immune systems.
“What EPA has done is actually undermining the results that their own researchers have proven in laboratory studies,” Herrick said.
New Guidance Could Confuse School Districts
State officials rely on EPA guidance to inform school districts on best practices. But the federal agency has changed its advice on PCBs several times over the years.
Paula Dinerstein, a lawyer with advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), indicated that officials have been uncertain what to do about the recent federal guideline update in July.
“I think EPA is confusing things by implying that there’s no health risk -- that all you have to do is wipe and vacuum, and you’ll be okay,” Dinerstein said.
The agency recently increased indoor air exposure levels for nearly all ages, saying that a child under two years old can safely inhale PCBs in a concentration of less than 100 nanograms per cubic meter in a school. Guidance from 2012 set this level at 70 nanograms.
School districts use these levels to determine if PCB remediation is needed. This change could be the difference between a school closing and spending millions on remediation, or staying open.
The adjustment was done “without explanation or any change in the underlying science,” said Herrick from Harvard. New guidance doesn’t encourage air testing at all, he said, in contrast to old guidance, which did.
Carpenter said that the EPA’s new exposure levels are “ludicrous,” and not based on science. PEER agreed, saying no research justifies the increases.
Carpenter suggested that the EPA is well aware of the health risks, but is caught between being forthcoming about the dangers and creating an unmanageable public health crisis. EPA officials have not responded to requests for comment.
State’s Technical High Schools Took Health Risk Seriously
John Woodmansee sprang into action when he learned that the schools he oversees could be contaminated with PCBs.
Woodmansee is the security and environmental health and safety coordinator for the Connecticut Technical High School System, a state-run organization of 17 technical high schools. In 2009, he started an analysis looking at air, dust, and caulk samples.
Ten schools ended up testing positive for PCBs, and three were found to have none. Another two technical educational centers for adults also tested positive, state records show.
Woodmansee and his team found PCBs in caulking, around windows, and in dust and air at the ten schools.
“We really felt that it was important to just make sure that our students and staff were safe,” Woodmansee said. “It’s easier and better to always be upfront… and share that information openly for everybody.”
In some cases, the PCBs were completely removed. In others, it was covered up by new caulk or another substance. As the district moves through future renovation projects, the PCBs will be removed, Woodmansee said.
WNPR asked for costs related to the testing and remediation at the technical high schools, but was referred to the State Department of Education, which has not responded.
The technical high schools’ proactive mitigation plan is not the norm. With no law that requires PCB testing, many schools could remain contaminated. Any building built or renovated between 1950 and 1979 could have PCBs, according to the EPA.
Woodmansee suggested that if a school could be contaminated, there’s no reason not to test.
"There’s obviously some cost associated with it," he said, "but to not look into it... may lead to additional costs down the line."