Millions of children in the U.S. are being exposed to deadly polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in their schools, despite the fact that such chemicals have been banned for decades.
That's according to a new report from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that analyzed Harvard research and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, and which also uncovered a dismal lack of regulation around the illegal chemicals in school buildings.
PCBs are industrial chemicals so toxic that they were banned by Congress 40 years ago.
"PCBs are some of the most toxic and persistent chemicals ever produced," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which analyzed the data on PCBs in Sen. Markey's report. "It's shocking to find that while they were banned decades ago, millions of kids and other Americans continue to be exposed today."
Indeed, EWG in a 2005 study found 147 different PCB contaminants in the umbilical cord blood of 10 American newborns.
"Our government, which requires that children attend school, should also ensure they're in schools and classrooms free from toxic chemicals like PCBs."
—Jennifer deNicola, America Unites for Kids
The environmental group explains the dangers associated with PCB exposure and how such exposure can occur:
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, have been linked to cancer, harm to the immune system, neurological damage, learning deficits, lowered birth weight and decreased thyroid function. Manufactured from the 1920s to the 1970s by Monsanto, PCBs were used as insulators for electrical equipment, oils for hydraulic systems, plasticizers in paints and caulks, components of fluorescent light fixtures and in consumer products such as carbonless copy paper. Not long after Monsanto introduced PCBs, the company discovered they were hazardous, but hid that information from the public and regulators.
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Schoolchildren are most often exposed by old, PCB-laden caulk and crumbling fluorescent light fixtures. They may also come in contact with PCBs that leached into soil, or that were incorporated into paints and floor finishes. Any school building constructed between the 1950s and the late 1970s is likely to test positive for PCBs, but the EPA does not currently require such tests.
"[B]ecause [PCBs] were commonly used in building materials for decades, they continue to contaminate classrooms in between 13,000 and 26,000 schools nationwide," the Washington Post reports.
Old building materials are "leaking PCBs into the schools where the kids and the teachers inhale them. They get contaminated dust on their skin," Harvard professor Robert Herrick, whose research has focused on the problem for years, told WNPR. "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."
Moreover, Sen. Markey's office released a report (pdf) Wednesday on the phenomenon of PCBs in schools based on EPA data and Herrick's research, and found that the regulations for such chemicals in schools are extremely weak or nonexistent.
"My report reveals that first, schools do not test for PCB hazards, and are not required to do so," Markey told the Connecticut public radio station. "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."
"This is absolutely outrageous," said Jennifer deNicola, president of the public health advocacy group America Unites for Kids. "No parent or educator should stand for it. Our government, which requires that children attend school, should also ensure they're in schools and classrooms free from toxic chemicals like PCBs."