Is Your Child's Public School Fertile Grounds for Cancer from PCBs?

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Is Your Child's Public School Fertile Grounds for Cancer from PCBs?
The greatest danger on your child’s campus is not bullies, but rather cancer-causing PCBs. Learn about the presence of PCBs in schools and whether your child’s school is at risk.
When parents send their children to school, most worry about whether their children will like their teachers or succeed in their classes. Few are concerned about the potential of cancer-causing elements like PCBs lurking in or around their children's school grounds.
 
Alas, recent assessments of New York schools have raised some troubling findings that indeed have parents concerned about their children's exposure to these potentially harmful elements during school hours.
 
Study Uncovers Disturbing Findings
 
According to a report at the New York Times, a pilot study into the presence and potential risks of PCBs was conducted in New York City school buildings. In the first three schools examined, elevated levels of the compounds were discovered. Remediation work on the schools and surrounding areas has already begun, and the city's Department of Education has stated that all three schools are on schedule to open to students on September 8.
 
The Formation of the PCB Task Force
 
However, the assurance does little to calm the concerns of parents who send their children to schools in the city. One parent of a student at French Hill Elementary School in Yorktown Heights, Dr. Daniel Lefkowitz, discovered hazardous levels of PCBs around a window and in the soil around the school in 2004. His findings resulted in a major cleanup of French Hill Elementary that amounted to a total bill of more than $300,000.
 
The discovery also launched the beginnings of a PCB Task Force that calls parents to work together to ensure safer schools for their children. The purpose of the task force, in addition to providing information, is to rally parents to call for a law mandating for testing for PCB in caulking and additional tests around the perimeter of the building, if the initial tests reveal a presence of PCBs in caulking.
 
The website for the task force provides much information about the presence of PCBs in building constructed prior to 1977 – the year the EPA banned PCB. It cites a study conducted by Dr. Bob Herrick of the Harvard School of Public Health who tested window caulking in 24 buildings constructed prior to this date. The study found that one-third of the buildings tested contained hazardous levels of PCB.
 
According to the New York Times article, cracked caulk was also the primary culprit in the PCB discovery at the three New York schools recently cited. When additional tests were conducted, PCBs were also found in lighting ballast, a device in fluorescent lighting made with oils containing PCBs. Cleanup has included the removal of caulk and the replacement of light fixtures at the schools.
 
The EPA, which is overseeing the pilot study, has said that preliminary reports at the three schools in question show PBC levels above federal health benchmarks, but added that the levels were not high enough for "immediate cause for alarm."
 
What is the Harm?
 
PCBs, known by the technical name of polychlorinated biphenyls, include highly toxic compounds widely used in a variety of construction materials from the 1950s until 1978, when they were phased out of use. These substances have been shown to cause a variety of health problems with prolonged exposure, including disorders of the reproductive, nervous and immune systems and some types of cancer.  
 
How to Protect Your Kids
 
Parents who are concerned about the presence of PCBs in their children's schools can take steps to ensure schools are safe for students. The EPA recommends that parents use the following checklist in determining PCB risk:
  • Schools built or remodeled between 1950 and 1978 include caulk that contains PCBs.
  • Cracking caulk, the result of aging buildings, may lead to PCB-laden dust, which can be released into the air.
  • If PCBs are detected in the school's caulk, the caulk with the highest levels of PCBs should be removed first, with removal of all the PCB-contaminated caulk as the ultimate goal.
  • Children who frequently touch PCB-contaminated surfaces can seriously impact their health, so wash children's hands and toys often if you are concerned about PCB exposure.
In addition, the EPA lists the following school locations to watch out for potential PCB contamination:
  • Contaminated soil
  • Masonry adjacent to windows
  • Indoor air that could have been exposed to PCBs
  • Construction elements such as paint, light fixtures and electrical transformers
While PCB exposure is a concern for many schools, those built or remodeled after 1978 are highly unlikely to contain PCBs. Schools that were constructed or remodeled during the high risk time may require additional testing to ensure the buildings and surrounding grounds are sufficiently safe for the students and staff that enter the school every day.

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