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Why So Many Schools in Connecticut Probably Have Toxic PCBs – But Aren’t Being Tested

Ryan Caron King
Hartford's Clark School, closed after PCBs were discovered in the building last December. The toxic materials were found in new ceiling tiles.
Finding PCBs in a school usually results in an expensive, time-consuming remediation process.

For nearly three decades across the U.S., toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were widely used in school construction and renovation work. A WNPR investigation has found that two-thirds of schools in Connecticut could be contaminated.

Despite a 1979 ban on PCBs -- a synthetic chemical -- and their classification as a known human carcinogen by the World Health Organization, there’s no state or federal law that requires testing for the presence of PCBs in schools.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that much like asbestos, undisturbed PCBs don’t pose a health risk. But a growing body of research disputes that position. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that PCBs can pose a long-term inhalation risk for workers, and a more serious risk in the case of a fire.

About 66 percent of public schools in the state were built or renovated between 1950 and 1979, when PCBs were commonly used.  The chemicals are likely to be in adhesive or caulk inside the walls, or sealing the windows -- in fireproofing, flooring, or paint. The EPA recommends testing to be sure.

But WNPR found that most school districts don’t test. Districts across the state vary widely with construction protocols, which means PCBs could still be in school buildings years or even decades after a renovation.

PCBs have been found in over 100 Connecticut schools since 2009, state records show. Each marker in the map below represents a school site where PCBs were discovered. Some schools have since been rebuilt.

Finding PCBs in a school usually results in an expensive, time-consuming remediation process. It can close a school for years, forcing students to relocate. 

Discovery of PCBs at Hartford’s Clark School Displaces Students

Last December, PCBs were found at Clark School in Hartford. The chemicals were discovered in ceiling tiles that were less than six months old, even though PCBs haven’t been produced in nearly four decades.

Clark is in Hartford’s North End, a working-class neighborhood that consists of mostly African American and Latino residents. Behind the school sits a row of apartment homes. One evening in early August, the neighborhood was alive with activity.

Elaine Felder stood on her balcony, looking out at Clark, aware of its problems. "At one point, when they first closed it down, you would see people cleaning up," she said. "But after that week, nobody. Nothing."

Credit David DesRoches / WNPR
Elaine Felder of Hartford looks at Clark School from her balcony.
Clark School was slated to open by January, but parents were recently informed the school would be closed for the year.

A report by Eagle Environmental, a hazardous materials consultant, found that an earlier construction project at Clark had released PCBs into the air. Months later, as officials prepared to replace the sprinkler system, they tested for PCBs.

In some places at the school, PCB concentrations were several hundred times the limit set by the EPA. The school has been closed since.

Felder’s granddaughter, Dezyiah, used to go to Clark, and Felder would see her every day. Since the school closed last year, Dezyiah has been going to nearby Wish School.

“I haven’t been seeing her as much as I had been since they closed the school down,” Felder said.

The transition has not been easy for either of them.

“It was hard for her because all of a sudden she’s just taken out of her environment for, as far as she would know, no apparent reason,” Felder said. “When she found out it was for health reasons, she was kind of reluctant about going to the other school because she felt that maybe this school has the same problem.”

As it turns out, Felder's granddaughter's concern could have some merit.

Wish School was built in 1962. Of the 100-plus remediated schools in Connecticut, about a quarter of them were built in the 1960s. Wish, like many similar schools across the state, has never been tested for PCBs. (Four other Hartford schools tested positive for PCBs above EPA limits, including Belizzi Middle School, built in 1961.)

Clark was originally slated to reopen by next January. But a few weeks ago, parents were informed that Clark would remain closed for the entire year.

A hallway in Hartford's empty Clark School, as seen through a window.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
A hallway in Hartford's empty Clark School, as seen through a window.

Remediation plans were delayed by the EPA’s lengthy bureaucratic process, according to Donald Slater, a member of the Hartford School Building Committee.

Elaine Felder said she just wants to know what’s going on.

“You have kids in the neighborhood,” she said, “so how does this situation affect the people in this environment that we’re living in?”

That sense of uncertainty around PCBs is a common theme for school districts across the state.

Why Many Connecticut Schools Go Untested for PCBs

Massachusetts resident George Weymouth used to work with brick masons to waterproof and seal brick work. He would mix PCB-based oil into the caulk before applying it, and he worked in many Connecticut schools both before and after PCBs were banned.

“There’s no place I can go and not find it,” Weymouth said of PCBs. The additive was used to help strengthen or give flexibility to caulking. He called it a good product. “It was the only 20-year guarantee out there.”

The chemical was especially helpful because it could withstand the colder temperatures, Weymouth said. "We all used it," he said.

There are 1,292 schools overseen by the Connecticut State Department of Education. Of those, roughly 49 percent, or 636 schools, were built between 1950 and 1979, according to correspondence with school officials and building permit records.

Another 29 schools were renovated between 1950 and 1979, according to records from Connecticut’s Department of Administrative Services.

WNPR contacted all public school districts in Connecticut about construction projects and PCB testing. About half provided information, and one thing became clear: many schools don’t test for PCBs because it’s not required.

For school administrators, the decision to test is often weighed against other pressing needs, said Guilford’s superintendent, Paul Freeman. He said that if the state considered PCBs to be a health risk, it would require the testing.

“We have health and safety concerns; the state has identified those for you,” Freeman said. “But to say that we were going to test, and try to address everything that could possibly be a concern, isn’t a reality... It’s a matter of weighing those priorities, and doing that in a way the community could support.”

In other schools, PCBs aren’t on the radar. Walter Willet, superintendent of Tolland Public Schools, said his facilities staff was unaware of possible PCB problems, even though two schools were built there between 1950 and 1979.

“I think we all need to be more educated about what the threat is that these pose to a district and children,” Willet said. “I think if it was better understood, we could all take effective action. It is strange – if they aren’t requiring [testing], it isn’t perceived as a threat for the children in school.”

Credit metroforensics.blogspot.com
PCB remediation in a file photo.

Renovations before 2009 were likely not preceded by a PCB test. The EPA did not yet recommend tests under certain conditions. Gilead Hill School in Hebron, for example, was built in 1967, and it had three major renovations prior to 2000. In all cases, the district never tested for PCBs.

Law Versus Practice: “A Wrinkle in the Regulations”

Without testing, schools undergo standard renovations, risking the release of PCBs. The toxic materials can end up in the surrounding air, dirt, or soil, said Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany. 

Credit http://metroforensics.blogspot.com/
Caulk containing PCB surrounds a window in a file photo. Safe removal of such materials in school buildings can be costly for a district.
Credit http://metroforensics.blogspot.com/
Removal of PCB-laden caulk in a file photo.

“Almost every building constructed before the late '70s had PCBs in them,” Carpenter said. “A lot of them still have them, and the cost of remediation is enormous.”

If a district finds PCBs above EPA limits, it's required to undergo remediation. But with no particular requirement to test, there's a disincentive.

This apparent gap in the law creates confusion over liability and best practices, said John Insall, an environmental consultant who works with schools and corporations on PCB remediation projects across the country.

“It’s kind of a wrinkle in the regulations,” Insall said. “Being that there’s no requirement to test for it, it creates kind of an odd situation for the commercial real estate market, because a lot of building owners don’t want to test for it -- because they don’t want to know.”

Insall added that his clients are often torn. If they don’t test, and PCBs are found later, they could be liable for additional costs.

PCBs rarely break down, and they travel easily between materials, which explains why buildings contain PCBs years after remediation.

Lori Saliby, a PCB expert with DEEP, said this could be a problem.

“If it’s PCB dust that then settles on a bunch of other things that didn’t have PCBs to begin with,” Saliby said, then those PCBs are there until those items are discarded.

In Granby, Connecticut -- a typical example in the state -- all four of the town's schools were built between 1950 and 1979. Each school was also renovated at least once, but none were tested for PCBs.

The district replaced windows on one school in 2001, which, according to Superintendent Alan Addley, “would have cured the window sill caulking issue, had one existed.”

Credit pcbinschools.org
An elementary school in Yorktown Heights, New York had PCB-contaminated soil due to PCB-laden window caulking. The soil had to be transported off-site.

Unregulated window removal at public schools brought PCBs back into the national spotlight in 2005. When windows were removed at a school in Westchester County, New York, PCBs were left behind in pieces of caulk that were scattered in the dirt. Dr. Daniel Lefkowitz found the contaminated caulk after the windows were replaced at his son’s school. PCBs then leached from the caulk into the soil, which ended up testing above EPA limits.

The district eventually spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up the soil, and it preempted New York City’s 2011 decision to embark on a district-wide PCB remediation effort involving over 750 schools.

Lefkowitz has been trying to get federal regulators to require public schools to test for PCBs, but he’s made little headway.

“I’ve been working on it for years and banging my head against the wall,” Lefkowitz said. “It’s not going to happen.”

What’s Next for Hartford’s Clark School

Anaivia Addison grew up on Westland Street, a few blocks north of Clark School.

Anaivia, eleven, and her mother, Veridiana Liciaga, are worried that Clark will remain closed, or that it will be completely demolished.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Hartford's Clark School.

The school is already falling into disrepair. Parts of the lawn haven't been mowed in months. Anaivia, a rising sixth grader, points to the broken windows on the side of the school, the product of vandalism.

“If people keep messing it up, they probably won’t open it at all,” Anaivia said. “They’ve replaced that window like, two times, but people keep shooting it and shooting it.”

Credit David DesRoches / WNPR
A damaged window at Hartford's Clark School.

Anaivia and her friends have been playing near the school all summer.

But it’s unclear if the dirt outside the school has been tested. The 17-page report by Eagle Environmental did not mention dirt testing.

The report noted, however, that the “potential exists that the PCBs from the caulk have leached into the adjacent masonry substrates and the substrates will require evaluation.”

Hartford’s school district spokesman, David Medina, referred requests for information on dirt testing to the environmental firm Arcadis, which hired Eagle. Neither firm has responded to requests for comment. Rich Wareing, chairman of Hartford’s Board of Education, deferred comment to the School Building Committee, which is overseeing the PCB remediation project at Clark. Donald Slater, a member of that committee, did not respond to requests for comment on this issue.

No signs alerting the public that Clark School is closed due to PCB contamination can be found on school grounds.

Even though the school is closed, Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, the district’s superintendent said Hartford did the right thing by testing and taking care of the problem.

“Safety is my top priority,” Schiavino-Narvaez told WNPR in March. “We want to move forward with the remediation work so we can get our Clark students and staff back to Clark as soon as possible.”

Last year, Clark was selected as part of the Commissioner’s Network, which provided money for schools that have a plan to improve significantly. But recently, the entity managing the school, CREC, dropped Clark from its management portfolio due to budget cuts at the state level.

Medina said the drop had “nothing to do with PCBs.”

In a letter to Clark parents dated August 6, Schiavino-Narvaez told parents that Clark will remain closed for the year. Later in the letter, the superintendent invited parents to “celebrate the start of the new school year at a gala festival on the Clark School grounds.”

For Elaine Felder, there isn’t much to celebrate for her granddaughter.

"Her mother did, you know, have her not come over here for a while," Felder said. "Because, like I said, we don’t know. Is it in the air? We don’t know."

This report is the first in a series stories about PCBs in Connecticut schools. Next: Tying PCBs to health problems among teachers and children has proven difficult for researchers, but emerging evidence has begun to connect the dots.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the map in this story incorrectly placed the location of Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, Connecticut. It has been changed to the correct location in Stratford.

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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