California Schools Magazine — Summer 2016
Change Language:
Mid-Century Schools & The PCB Threat
Hugh Biggar

Chemicals found in classrooms create challenges for districts

In 2011 in the scenic coastal community of Malibu, workers mysteriously removed tons of soil from a public school quad in the hills above the Pacific Ocean. The dirt removal, 48 truckloads worth, also unearthed many subsequent questions from the community, and became part of a broader discussion about the prevalence of man-made chemicals found at many school campuses, and what to do about them.

Those chemicals are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Schools built between the 1950s and the 1970s commonly used PCBs as an electrical coolant and insulator in fluorescent light ballasts and in caulk as a sealant. They were also used in fireproofing, window glazing, ceiling tiles and other materials. In addition to being present in caulk and lighting, PCBs can also migrate into the air, soil and water and can be absorbed by other building materials (such as paint or stucco), and do not break down easily in the environment.

Over time, studies determined PCBs can be highly toxic and can cause cancer. As a result, PCB production use was banned by the United States Congress in 1979 under the Toxic Control Substances Act, and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.

The Environmental Protection Agency phased out PCB production in the 1970s, but the chemicals can still be found in older facilities. A Harvard University School of Public Health study estimated that roughly one-third of schools nationally may contain PCBs.

Now, questions center on the risk PCBs pose to students and staff, how to proceed and pay for clean up, and how many facilities might be affected.

“One of the problems is there is no statewide inventory of school facilities, so we don’t really know the scope of what we are dealing with,” Nancy Chaires Espinoza, a legislative advocate with CSBA, says. “We also know that their mere presence does not pose a health risk. That occurs when they are inhaled or ingested.”

Isaac Pessah, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California, Davis stresses that exposure to PCBs does not necessarily mean health problems will result. One reason is that PCBs are a mixture of more than 200 different structures, each varying in concentration, and some more potent biologically than others. Vulnerability to PCBs also depends on an individual’s genetic makeup, immune status, stress factors, general health and exposure to drugs and other toxicants in the environment.

Even so, for some susceptible individuals, low-level exposure may be harmful. Depending on the form of the PCBs, adverse outcomes of PCB exposure can include hyperactivity, psychomotor deficits, cognitive impairments and other health problems throughout one’s life.

With this in mind, school administrators now face the question of how to best mitigate the risk from PCBs and ensure a safe environment for students and staff.

“The concern over PCBs in California schools is serious,” says Jeffrey Vincent, deputy director of the Center for Cities and Schools at The University of California, Berkeley. “About half of the K-12 schools in California were built between 1950 and 1980 — that’s exactly the time period when PCB-based caulking was in high use in schools and other public buildings.” (The facilities division of the California Department of Education says 60 percent of the state’s schools are more than 36 years old.)

California laws require any PCBcontaminated building to be sealed, and have warning signs stating the presence of the toxins. However, school districts are not legally required to test for PCBs, as they do for asbestos and lead.

The EPA has also developed guidance on reducing exposures to PCBs from school building materials, including exposure levels for evaluating PCBs in indoor air. When PCBs are found in building material at or above the threshold of 50 parts per million, a school district is required to remove them. According to the EPA, 50 ppm is used as a threshold requiring action, rather than one based entirely on risk factors for health.

CSBA’s Chaires Espinoza, who has worked with the EPA and other education organizations on the issue, encourages school districts to review maintenance records to see if light ballasts have been replaced, ensure classrooms are regularly cleaned and free of dust accumulation, and to consult with legal and safety experts to ensure understanding and compliance with TSCA.

“Simply making sure windows are wiped down with a wet cloth and that dust doesn’t accumulate are good steps,” she says, adding that staff cutbacks to janitorial services during the recent recession meant this sometimes may have gone overlooked.

Tom Huetteman, an assistant director with the EPA, also urges schools built in the PCB era to see if they still have affected light ballasts. If so, the ballasts or the entire light fixture should be replaced, particularly since they can leak or drip. The leaking liquid can volatilize into the air and in some cases smoke. Schools should get rid of a leaking ballast right away.

“Adequate ventilation is important in classrooms, as well,” he says.

All of these clean-up efforts are costly, though, and can create more problems.

“Remediation is amazingly expensive and is likely to release more PCBs into the atmosphere as part of the clean-up process,” says Pessah. “The cost can increase if PCBs have migrated into the air or are present in nearby material or soil.”

Equally problematic, state and local school districts are on their own, with no federal help, when it comes to repairing schools and paying for the renovations. School bonds have long been a popular way to finance such projects, but the state has run out of money for state bonds.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is using money from a local bond measure to check for PCB contamination in every school in the district. Scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016, the district will check 745 sites at a cost of $19 million. In a separate effort, Los Angeles USD is spending $30 million on energy efficient lighting upgrades which also removes older, possibly harmful ballasts.

“Rather than trying to clean up around the ballast, it is much simpler to just get rid of it, bag it up and take it away,” Robert Laughton, director of Environmental Health and Safety at Los Angeles USD, says. He also encourages districts that contract out the work to follow up and make sure the cleaning is done thoroughly and properly under EPA guidelines.

The EPA’s Huetteman adds that funds available through Proposition 39 can help, as well. “Prop. 39 makes it easier to get rebates for replacing older fluorescent lights with more energy efficient ones,” he says.

“A number of epidemiological studies have provided evidence that higher exposure to PCBs, especially early in life, are associated with increased risks of developmental problems,” he adds.

Before PCB testing, Chaires Espinoza encourages school officials to consult with District counsel to ensure full understanding of the federal TSCA provisions that regulate the treatment, disposal and handling of PCBs.

“If a school was built in the PCB era, building materials should be sampled to see if there is a PCB problem,” says Paula Dinerstein, a lawyer for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, known as PEER. “If sampling reveals illegal levels of PCBs, more extensive testing should be done, or it should simply be assumed that all building materials similar to and installed at the same time as those testing above legal limits are also contaminated. Then make a plan to remove them and follow EPA requirements for testing and treating surrounding materials in case the PCBs have migrated into them, and for proper disposal of the PCB materials.”

Dinerstein, who has advocated on behalf of parents and teachers in Malibu, urges schools to get rid of PCBs in the source material, pointing out that cleaning or encapsulation only temporarily decreases exposures.

Adds UC Berkeley’s Vincent, “to fully address this problem, the state really needs to do regular and robust conditions assessments of all our K-12 public school buildings across the state. The fact that California doesn't do this means we don't know where to target our solutions to PCBs in schools, or to any other widespread health and safety problem in our school facilities.”

Back in Malibu, the more than 1,000 tons of dirt removed from the school quad in 2011 was later determined to contain “an unacceptable risk to health” due to PCBs, according to an environmental report.

The district says the dirt issue has been handled and it is now focusing on caulk remediation. It has also repaired light ballasts in all classrooms. Under direction from the EPA, there are also plans for continued sampling of PCBs during the summer breaks of 2016 and 2017 and removal of any new contamination. “We are confident we are following the law and direction of EPA and our classrooms are safe,” says Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Community and Public Relations Officer Gail Pinsker.

So far, the Santa Monica-Malibu USD has spent roughly $10 million on environmental consultants, testing and legal fees. Meanwhile, a coalition of community members and PEER has sued the district over its Handling of PCBs, and the case went to trial in May 2016.

“Although [remediation] is somewhat costly and a demanding procedure, it is the only way to ensure compliance and a healthy environment,” Dinerstein says. “In the end, it is much more costly in both money and health to do anything else.”

Hugh Biggar ( is a staff writer for CSBA.


Practical Actions for Reducing Exposure to PCBs in Schools and Other Buildings, Environmental Protection Agency

PCBs in Schools

Guidelines for Schools

PCBs in Schools

Getting the lead out

Lead in water systems continues to challenge California’s public schools.

Typically, lead can be found in older pipes, water fountains, faucets and other equipment. This is particularly true for schools built before 1986, when the Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the amount of lead content in water. Older pipes, too, can corrode and lead can mix into the water supply.

Drinking such water is likened to drinking from a leadcoated straw. Once ingested, lead contamination can lead to health and developmental problems and impair cognitive ability. Children under the age of six and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

School districts are encouraged to be proactive in minimizing risks. Even if water supplies are not contaminated by lead, equipment within buildings can be. Testing for lead is only required for schools with their own wells. But districts can take other steps to lessen the health hazard.

Los Angeles USD, for example, has allocated roughly $20 million to survey the district’s more than 45,000 drinking fountains. Some of those fountains can have brass fittings that can leach lead. Once the survey is complete (anticipated to be within the next 18 months), Los Angeles USD will make repairs and replacements. In the meantime, The district is flushing water from fountains used for drinking or food preparation for a minimum of 30 seconds each morning to remove overnight accumulation. In place since 1989, the district has determined the practice is hard to enforce and can waste water. The district is also placing water fountains in high-use areas so the high volume can help flush the water.

In response to lead, other districts such as Marysville Joint Unified School District in Northern California, use bottled water for drinking water. At Orange Center Elementary School near Fresno, students and staff refill bottles from five-gallon water coolers in every classroom. The Environmental Protection Agency also recommends using cold water for cooking and prioritizing strategic sampling of drinking water. The EPA’s threshold of the amount of lead in water requiring action is 15 parts per billion.


EPA, Testing Schools and Child Care Centers for Lead