Toxic chemicals responsible for shutting down a Lexington elementary school earlier this month are likely present in hundreds of Massachusetts schools and other buildings, raising growing concerns that schools will be forced to choose between expensive cleanups and letting these toxins remain.
For nearly thirty years the chemicals known as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were added to commercial-grade caulking. PCBs were banned in 1977 because of links to cancer and other health problems, but the toxic substance remains in many buildings built before the ban.
Contaminated caulking is the likely source of contamination at Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington. Crews have been working since last month to remove the contaminated caulk.
How many other schools in Massachusetts have the potentially cancer-causing PCBs in them? No one knows for sure.
But records from the Massachusetts School Building Authority reveal 956 public schools in Massachusetts were built between 1950 and 1978, when PCBs were used in caulking. That's 54% of public schools in the state.
Robert Herrick, senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that while the health risk of contaminated caulk in schools is still unclear, but there’s no doubt that PCBs are dangerous.
’I think that's really the question that remains to be answered. There's no doubt that PCBs are extremely toxic,’ said Herrick.
Herrick, whose research exposed caulking as a source of PCB contamination, said buildings that might have contaminated caulking should test for PCBs even though it's not required.
He also believes some schools and building owners are reluctant to test because if they find contamination, they're required by the federal government to clean it up.
’The loophole is that the regulation has no requirement that you have to do the testing in the first place. So in a sense there's a bit of a disincentive to actually look for it,’ Herrick said.
Not testing can create other problems, as New York City recently discovered.
’The downside of not looking for it, and this is what happened in New York City is, you just go in and replace those windows and remove those materials without taking the appropriate precautions and you can spread contamination throughout the building. Then you have a bigger problem then you would have had in the first place,’ Herrick said.
So how many schools in Massachusetts have tested for PCBs?
No one's keeping track. But the school construction records obtained by FOX Undercover show that 667 schools built when PCBs were used have replaced or renovated their windows -- all without any testing requirement.
The EPA requires building owners only to notify the agency when PCBs are found. So far, just five public schools in this state have reported finding PCBs, including the Murphy School Dorchester.
The school found the PCBs in caulking while preparing to fix leaks at the school. It remains open while the PCBs are removed.
’Is it safe for students to be here while this is going on?’ asked FOX Undercover’s Mike Beaudet.
’Yes,’ said Boston Public Schools facilities manager Jeff Lane. ’We're monitoring the work practices. We're monitoring the air quality. We're checking inside. Making sure that things are safe for the kids. We wouldn't do it any other way.’
State public health officials worry about a rush to remove PCBs from schools, which could inadvertently spread the PCBs further. The state health department advises schools to leave potentially contaminated caulking alone so long as it’s in good condition.
’My biggest concern as a public health person is that when you disturb it you can pretty much guarantee that you will have levels of PCBs in the indoor environment of the building,’ said Suzanne Condon, associate commissioner at the state Department of Public Health.
Condon also points to the high cost of removing the PCBs as another reason not to rush to removal.
’Our advice that was issued this past December basically says if the material is intact it is highly unlikely to cause any kind of an exposure problem,’ she said.
But Harvard’s Robert Herrick says he's not convinced leaving the caulking alone is the best idea even if it appears intact because the lifespan for the caulking is about 20 years.
’Should this become a priority,’ asked FOX Undercover’s Beaudet.
’I do think it should,’ Herrick replied. ’There really needs to be a national survey to just determine the extent of this problem.’
The EPA does say that the problem doesn’t extend to single-family homes, where the potentially contaminated caulking was not used.