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Report Claims 14 Million Kids Could Be Exposed to Toxic PCBs at School

Anna Vignet for Reveal
Across the country, tens of thousands of public schools could be contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls – a compound more commonly known as PCBs, which were used widely in the caulking of windows. ";

A Massachusetts senator released a report on Wednesday claiming that it would cost up to $52 billion to get rid of toxic PCBs from public schools across the country. 

U.S. Senator Edward Markey's report estimated that as many as 14 million students in the U.S. could be attending schools contaminated with toxic PCBs.

PCBs were banned in the late 1970s, but were used in light fixtures and caulking in schools built or renovated between 1950 and 1979. They've been listed as a known human carcinogen and have been tied to an assortment of health problems, such as delayed development and attention problems.

In a conference call with reporters, Markey said that at the rate the EPA is currently inspecting schools, it would take 32 years to check all of them for contamination.

"Most of the classrooms in schools in America were built to educate the baby boomer generation," he said. "That group is now retiring. It's time to retire these toxic PCB chemicals from our schools as well."

Markey noted that PCB policies and procedures vary widely from state to state. States in New England have reported the most cases of PCBs in schools, according to the report. Some parts of the country have found PCBs in schools but never reported it to the EPA.

Markey said this is part of the problem.

Credit Sen. Edward Markey's report, "The ABCs of PCBs"

"My report reveals that first, schools do not test for PCB hazards, and are not required to do so," Markey said. "And when PCB contamination is found, no one has to report it to the EPA... To put it plainly, we have no real idea how many students are being exposed to PCBs in their classroom each and every day." 

Markey's report, called the "ABCs of PCBs," builds on reporting done by WNPRand Reveal. It includes a report card of sorts for each state, rating them on the availability of PCB information on state websites.

Connecticut was the only state in New England -- and one of only two in the country -- that received positive marks for each category. 

Credit "The ABCs of PCBs"

According to Markey's report, Massachusetts is missing information on PCB reporting guidance; Vermont has no information on reporting or disposal; New Hampshire only has general information; Rhode Island only has a few links to information; and Maine has no information at all.

Another problem is how schools respond to PCB issues. Schools aren't required to inform parents, students or teachers if a school has a PCB problem. Some parents have had to sue their school get rid of the PCBs. 

Harvard professor Robert Herrick has studied this problem for years.

"They're leaking PCBs into the schools where the kids and the teachers inhale them. They get contaminated dust on their skin," Herrick said. "Our research has shown that in the teachers, if you look at the PCB levels in their blood, they have higher levels than you find in the general population."

As many as two-thirds of Connecticut schools could be contaminated with PCBs, according to a WNPR investigation. Last year, Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy urged the EPA to enforce PCB regulations.

Both Murphy and Markey have stated separately that the federal government should help local school districts pay for testing and remediation.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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