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October 17, 2019
CHICAGO — The Environmental Protection Agency and lawmakers have quietly abandoned efforts to rid schools of toxic PCBs, leaving districts — especially in poor areas — with a difficult choice: Look for the long-banned chemicals, which could trigger a costly cleanup, or simply clean their buildings as well as possible.
Many older buildings have caulk, ceiling tiles, floor adhesives and paint made with PCBs, sometimes at levels far higher than allowed by law. And millions of PCB-containing fluorescent light ballasts probably remain in older schools and day care centers, where they can leak, smolder and catch fire.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency never attempted to determine the scope of PCB contamination or assess potential health risks because of a lack of funding, political pressure and pushback from industry and education groups, according to dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of documents examined by The Associated Press.
Members of Congress who promised three years ago to find money to help schools address PCBs and other pollutants never introduced legislation. At the EPA, a rule to require schools and day cares to remove PCB-containing ballasts moved slowly under the Obama administration and then was quashed by President Donald Trump as part of deregulation efforts.
Tom Simons, a now-retired EPA regulator who worked on the rule, said getting rid of ballasts was the least the EPA could do to protect children.
“We thought it was a no-brainer: There are millions out there. These things are smoking and dripping, so let's put this through,” Simons said.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, have been linked to increased long-term risks of cancer, immune and reproductive impairment and learning problems.
They were manufactured by Monsanto Co. and used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979. By then they were in transformers, air conditioners, adhesives and billions of light ballasts in schools, hospitals, homes, offices and commercial and industrial buildings.
They also were ubiquitous in the environment and building up in human bodies.
But nobody worried about schools.
Then a 2004 study by Harvard health professor Robert Herrick identified the widespread use of PCBs in caulk in schools built before 1980, estimating that up to 26,000 buildings and 14 million students could be affected.
The EPA later found PCBs in caulk and other materials could get into the air or dust and be absorbed by walls and other surfaces. The agency also discovered that many older schools still were using PCB-containing fluorescent light ballasts.
In California's wealthy Santa Monica-Malibu School District, parents, including model Cindy Crawford, sued after tests of caulk found PCB levels up to 11,000 times the EPA's threshold. The district ultimately agreed to get rid of PCBs. It has torn down a middle school and continues to remove them from other buildings.
In Hartford, Connecticut, an elementary school in a low-income African American neighborhood was closed because the city could not afford to remove PCBs. The city has sued Monsanto and a company that made caulk to recover the costs.
“It was the crown jewel of the neighborhood,” former city council member Steven Harris said of J.C. Clark Elementary. “Our school board is doing the best they can. The reality is we don't have a lot of money.”
Monsanto, now owned by Bayer Crop Sciences, has denied responsibility in lawsuits involving several school districts. The company said there is no proof PCBs cause significant health problems, especially at levels found in buildings.
Experts say proving PCBs caused specific illnesses is daunting and could be impossible because problems can take years to develop and not everyone who's exposed will get sick.
But parents and teachers who say they were exposed to PCBs at a public alternative school in Monroe, Washington, are trying to do just that. They believe that dripping and smoking light ballasts made them sick, and they have filed their own lawsuit.
Either way, it's crucial to reduce the chemicals in schools because children are more vulnerable and continued exposure begins to “chisel away at the margin of safety” and could increase the odds of long-term health problems, said Mark Maddaloni, a former EPA toxicologist.
Former officials said the EPA was hamstrung by a politically fraught problem that could cost billions of dollars. What's more, many schools also had other high-priority pollutants such as lead, asbestos and mold.
So instead of requiring — or encouraging — schools to test for PCBs, the EPA recommended thorough cleaning and ventilation and said districts could cover materials that might contain PCBs until buildings were renovated or razed.
That guidance outlined important steps schools could take to reduce exposure regardless of their finances, said Tom Huetteman, former assistant director of the PCB program at San Francisco-based EPA Region 9.
“It would be great if there was zero exposure in schools, but that's not the world we live in,” Huetteman said.
Current EPA officials said in written responses that the agency's recommended precautions are usually effective, but those steps might not adequately reduce exposure in every school. They also said the agency is “actively identifying” money for a program targeting school environmental hazards.
The best chance to address PCBs was by removing light ballasts because it was comparatively easy and saved schools money on electric bills, said Judith Enck, administrator of the EPA's Region 2 under Obama. She helped get hundreds of thousands of ballasts — many leaking — out of almost 900 New York City schools.
The EPA estimates there are 2.6 million ballasts in schools and a half-million in day cares nationally, with up to 70 percent leaking. It recommends removing old ballasts despite the failed ban, and many districts have.
But Enck said removing the ballasts is not enough.
“The debate was never based on science and health. It was ‘We don't want the grief from schools, and it's a lot of work and we have other priorities,'” she said. “I disagreed.”
Herrick, the Harvard professor, said he's frustrated that neither the EPA nor Congress attempted to create a “coherent national policy” on PCBs.
“They intentionally dodged their responsibility to put some sort of framework around the problem,” said Herrick, who retired last year. “I think it's because they don't want the answer.”