Concern over polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, is not new. In fact, it took years for the Educational Association of Worcester, the city teachers’ union, to secure a June ruling that would allow it to test for PCB levels at Burncoat and Doherty Memorial high schools.
The organic compound found to cause cancer in lab animals and to have a number of potentially serious health effects for humans, including some cancers, is most commonly found in window caulking, brickwork and fluorescent lighting fixtures.
The School Committee has thus far resisted the EAW’s calls for testing and filed an appeal to the June state Labor Relations Board ruling. The city is quick to point out, though, that it has taken steps to address PCB concerns with a number of window and fluorescent light ballast replacement projects.
Here are seven things you should know about PCBs and how they relate to Worcester’s aging public school buildings.
#1) 29 school buildings built or renovated when PCBs were in use
There are 20 school buildings in current use that were constructed in the “PCB era,” between 1930 and 1979, when use of the manmade compound was prevalent (particularly beginning about 1950) in building materials. Manufacturing of the potential human carcinogen was banned by the EPA in 1979. Nine other schools had additions or “major” renovations during that time period, according to Worcester Public Schools.
Foley Stadium, which was renovated in 1965, and Mill Swan School, a Head Start school built in 1962 that is not eligible for funding under the Massachusetts School Building Authority, are among the 29. The others are:
Constructed during the PCB era
- 1971 — Belmont Street Community School
- 1964 — Burncoat High School
- 1952 — Burncoat Middle School
- 1977 — Chandler Elementary Community School
- 1953 — Chandler Magnet School
- 1953 — Clark Street Developmental Learning School
- 1966 — Doherty Memorial High School
- 1963 — Caradonio New Citizens Center
- 1971 — Elm Park Community School
- 1953 — Flagg Street School
- 1960 — Forest Grove Middle School
- 1977 — Francis J. McGrath Elementary
- 1932 — Heard Street Discovery Academy
- 1978 — South High Community School
- 1931 — Vernon Hill School
- 1963 — Wawecus Road School
- 1961 — West Tatnuck School
- 1961 — Worcester Arts Magnet
* note, Worcester Public Schools counts the demolished North High in its list of 20, according to a 2015 facilities report, but left out Heard Street school
Renovated or additions built during the PCB era (which include Greendale and Harlow Street schools, also non-MSBA, Head Start schools); original open date, followed by renovation/addition completion date.
- 1922 (1950) — Columbus Park Prep Academy
- 1927 (1952) — May Street School
- 1927 (1968) — Nelson Place School
- 1914 (1980) — Rice Square School
- 1922 (1954) — Tatnuck Magnet School
- 1927 (1956) — Thorndyke Road School
- 1924 (????) — Worcester East Middle School
#2) 12 schools’ windows addressed … maybe
According to WPS, a dozen schools (11 from the PCB era and Union Hill) inspected by an environmental consultant have either already had windows replaced or have window replacements scheduled through 2016 as part of an Environmental Management System put in place in 2010, largely in response to PCB questions.
Those schools are: Chandler Magnet (done), Clark Street, Flagg Street, McGrath Elementary, Caradonio New Citizens Center (done), South High, Union Hill, West Tatnuck, Worcester Arts Magnet (done), Columbus Park (done), May Street and Tatnuck Magnet (done).
But, according to the MSBA, three of those projects — Flagg Street, McGrath Elementary and South High — are not active or have not been approved for funding.
[Editor’s note: Worcester Public Schools last month reported spending $1.2 million in the summer of 2012 for PCB remediation. The T&G’s Oct. 7 story reports Mayor Joseph M. Petty saying the city has spent “more than $53 million over the last four years to replace windows, remove ballasts, and perform other work recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency as best practices in dealing with PCBs.”]
#3) 12 more schools … in the clear … of PCBs, anyway
There are 12 schools, in 11 buildings, all built since 1987, which should be clear of PCB concerns, including 3 high schools, 1 middle school and 8 elementary schools.
- 1987 — Canterbury Magnet School
- 1991 — City View Discovery
- 1999 — Claremont Academy / Woodland Academy (shared building)
- 1996 — Gates Lane School of International Studies
- 1990 — Jacob Hiatt Magnet School
- 1999 — Norrback Avenue School
- 2011 — North High School
- 1998 — Quinsigamond School
- 2001 — Roosevelt School
- 1992 — Sullivan Middle School
- 2006 — Worcester Technical High School
#4) Common commercial uses for PCBs
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “PCBs may be present in products and materials produced before the 1979 PCB ban. Products that may contain PCBs include”:
- Transformers and capacitors
- Electrical equipment including voltage regulators, switches, re-closers, bushings and electromagnets
- Oil used in motors and hydraulic systems
- Old electrical devices or appliances containing PCB capacitors
- Fluorescent light ballasts
- Cable insulation
- Thermal insulation material including fiberglass, felt, foam and cork
- Adhesives and tapes
- Oil-based paint
- Carbonless copy paper
- Floor finish
The EPA says, “The PCBs used in these products were chemical mixtures made up of a variety of individual chlorinated biphenyl components known as congeners. Most commercial PCB mixtures are known in the United States by their industrial trade names, the most common being Arochlor.”
#5) More from the EPA: Release and exposure of PCBs
There are a number of ways PCBs can still be released into the environment:
- Poorly maintained hazardous waste sites that contain PCBs
- Illegal or improper dumping of PCB wastes
- Leaks or releases from electrical transformers containing PCBs
- Disposal of PCB-containing consumer products into municipal or other landfills not designed to handle hazardous waste
- Burning some wastes in municipal and industrial incinerators
“PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment. They can remain for long periods cycling between air, water and soil,” according to the EPA. “PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far from where they were released into the environment. As a consequence, they are found all over the world. In general, the lighter the form of PCB, the further it can be transported from the source of contamination.”
Worth noting: Items containing PCBs tend to be safe unless the caulking, light ballasts, etc., are disturbed, allowing particles to disperse into the air, like during building renovations
#6) All about the congeners
A 2000 study of German teachers found that, “despite high PCB indoor air levels in schools, there was only a moderate increase in blood concentrations of teachers, mainly due to congeners with low chlorination (PCB 28 to PCB 101).”
“The impact of these elevations is modest compared with those associated with eating contaminated fish, for example,” according to the 2004 Harvard/Robert Herrick study referenced in the Sun’s first report on PCBs.
There are 209 PCB congeners, according to GreenFacts.
#7) Monsanto, the sole PCB manufacturer from 1935-1977, ordered to pay $46.5 million in damages in May court ruling
The case, which involved only three of nearly 100 plaintiffs claiming that exposure to PCBs caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma, is considered a rare win against the giant conglomerate.
“This is the future,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Steven Kherkher of Houston told EcoWatch. “The only reason why this victory is rare is because no one has had the money to fight Monsanto,” explaining that his law firm, Williams Kherkher, and other law firms pooled their resources to get the case off the ground.
The 10-2 verdict in St. Louis Circuit Court awarded $17.5 million in damages to the three plaintiffs and assessed an additional $29 million in punitive damages against Monsanto, Solutia, Pharmacia and Pfizer.