PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are known as one of the 12 most harmful organic chemicals in the world. But the material has been used in building construction for decades, and has become a complex problem affecting cities, schools, and individuals in many states.
WNPR’s David DesRoches has been reporting on this topic during the past year. In a series, he examined the problem with PCBs in Connecticut, with a special look at school construction and the latest understanding of the chemical’s health impacts.
Recently, DesRoches looked into the subject again for a Reveal documentary.
Hartford in particular faced an acute problem at its Clark Elementary School, where PCBs were found during a sprinkler installation, and the school had to be closed. Officials found PCBs throughout the building after testing it, and earlier this year the city announced it planned to tear the school down and rebuild.
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy urged the Environmental Protection Agency last year to help guide communities like Hartford as they deal with the burden of PCBs.
"There are many schools across Connecticut that are undergoing renovations and could encounter PCBs as a result of these renovations," Murphy told the EPA’s Gina McCarthy. "It is my position that the federal government should encourage school construction projects, and PCBs often make such construction cost prohibitive — at the expense of the children those schools serve."
DesRoches spoke with WNPR’s Diane Orson about what he’s learned. You can hear it in detail when the documentary airs on WNPR Sunday, June 12, at 7:00 pm.
Diane Orson: So what’s this weekend’s story about?
David DesRoches: It’s about PCBs, which as you know, we’ve been reporting on here at WNPR. And this story, specifically, is kind of following the history of this toxic, man-made chemical, polychlorinated biphenyls, which is a mouthful.
PCBs have been named one of the 12 worst organic chemicals in the world. But it’s been used in all kinds of commercial buildings, including schools. It was used in caulk and light fixtures. And in caulk, the PCBs actually can evaporate into the air, and then they’re inhaled. So PCBs have been tied to all kinds of health issues.
We followed the history of PCBs, and found that the only company that made them in the United States, Monsanto, is being sued by cities, schools, and people. So the cities and schools want Monsanto to clean up the PCBs. And the individuals are claiming that they got sick.
But the legal cases are really complicated, because in the early ’90s, Monsanto spun off its chemical division, which manufactured the PCBs, and renamed it Solutia. So today, Monsanto says we’re not responsible for these legacy liabilities.
They did this right when the first PCB lawsuits were happening, in Anniston, Alabama – which is one of the cities where Monsanto actually made PCBs.
And you went to Anniston, Alabama, not too long ago. What were people talking about there?
Right, so people are still really upset, even though in 2003, about 21,000 residents – almost the entire city – collected $600 million in a settlement with Monsanto, Solutia, and another company. But very few residents actually got more than $7,000.
One woman I spoke with -- her name is Sylvia Curry -- she spent all her money on her husband’s medical bills. Her husband developed this rare cancer. So I talked with her, and her friend, Curtis Ray, about what they want to see.
"I would just like to see justice," Curry said. "I would. I would like to have the money too, yeah, but I would just like to see justice done. Because they know they have done us wrong."
Those are voices from Anniston, Alabama, but there’s a Connecticut connection to this story as well.
Right, there is a Connecticut connection. Just over 100 schools have found PCBs, but in most of the cases, they’re just remediating parts of buildings. They’re not actually getting rid of the PCBs. Because there’s no requirement to test, actually a lot of superintendents around Connecticut simply don’t test for PCBs, and they often just do renovations.
And where else did you go? Who else did you speak with?
Covering this story for the past year, we spoke to a lot of different people.
One of the people I met was George Weymouth, who lives outside of Boston. He was a building waterproofer in the '60s and '70s, and he actually used PCB caulk on all sorts of schools. He later found out that the PCBs were really bad, so he felt terrible about what he had done.
So he began testing schools for PCBs, hoping that he could create some awareness around this, and actually get rid of the PCBs. He actually became known in some circles as “the repentant caulker.”
He had tested some buildings after he retired, [and] found that a lot of the buildings that he worked on had really high levels of PCBs. So he sent those results to the schools, to the EPA, but many schools didn’t do anything about it. They just simply ignored him. The EPA ignored him also. That’s because there’s no obligation to do anything about it, even though PCBs are actually, technically illegal in most instances in caulk. The EPA allows them to stay as long as a school basically keeps their windows open, airs out the building, and keeps dust samples down.
But, you know, I talked to a lot of leading PCB researchers, and they say this is just silly. You know, the best way to handle this is just to get rid of the PCB caulk.