Monday, February 28, 2011

PCBs in School Classrooms

This is a reminder that plenty of ballasts using PCB still exist and that their failure often dumps PCBs into the atmosphere of the building.  The device is typically removed quickly, but exposure is common.   To be fair, all buildings should now be inspected for remaining obsolete ballasts and transformers that use PCBs.  They are all long past replacement dates and are all waiting to fail only for replacement.  There remains no good reason for them to be there.

The likelihood of catastrophic exposure is low, except for the chap tasked for their removal when they do fail.  No one has done a study on maintenance men for PCB exposure and their assorted ailments.

As this item makes clear, the real and present danger is to a fetus in the womb.  Yet later dangers may simply be unlooked for.  If you do not ask you do not know.  That applies to a host of chemicals that farmers in particular get exposed to.  We have little reason to trust the self serving research that came from the companies who market these products.

This coverage applies to all schools everywhere and is something everyone should be awake to.  Simply asking about the last time all ballasts were replaced may be enough to complete the recycling of the old ballasts.

PCBs in School Classrooms Q&A:

February 7, 2011, 1:48 PM

Environmental Protection AgencyA ballast for a fluorescent lighting fixture that burst unexpectedly.

As I reported last week, many parents in New York City are worried about the presence of the chemicals known as PCBs in light fixtures and caulking in school buildings. The latest spot inspection by the federal Environmental Protection Agency — on Jan. 29 at Public School 68 in the Bronx –- turned up lighting ballasts that were leaking PCBs above the regulatory level of 50 parts per million in 10 of 13 samples taken, the agency announced Monday. Over the past several weeks, the E.P.A. found similar contamination at all three other city schools that it inspected, too.

For our Green blog readers, we submitted written questions to two experts at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan about any health risks faced by students and teachers.

The following responses, edited for brevity, were provided by Dr. Maida P. Galvez, an associate professor in the school’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics and the director of the hospital’s Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, and Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a professor of pediatrics who is chairman of both community medicine and the Department of Preventive Medicine as well as the school’s dean of global health.

When did doctors awaken to the dangers of PCBs, or ploychlorinated biphenyls?

Medical and environmental concern about the long environmental persistence and possible effects on human health of PCBs first arose in the 1960s and 1970s and led to a federal ban on the manufacture of PCBs that was imposed in 1976 under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Unfortunately, PCBs had already become widespread in the environment by that time, and they remain with us today.

What does the research tell us about health risks?

Much research on PCBs has been conducted over the past three decades. Biomedical research on PCBs has documented that diet is today the principal source of human exposure. For most people, contaminated fish is one important source of dietary exposure. Other sources of exposure include PCBs in older building materials like caulking and fluorescent light fixtures.

Fetal brain damage to babies in the womb is the most important human health effect of PCB exposure. Well-conducted, highly credible epidemiological studies demonstrate that babies born to mothers with elevated levels of PCBs in their bodies have diminished intelligence, as measured by decreased I.Q. scores. These effects on the fetal brain appear to be permanent and irreversible.

Children and adults are much less sensitive to PCBs than unborn children.

Many parents are fretting about the discovery of light fixtures in schools that are leaking PCBs. What would you tell people who fear that their children will suffer health effects from exposure to these toxic chemicals?

Now that PCBs have been discovered in leaking light fixtures in schools, it is clear that faulty fixtures need to be removed to prevent further exposure of children, teachers and other school staff. But this situation is not a medical emergency.

PCBs at the levels found in schools in New York City today will not make any child or any teacher acutely ill. There is no need for panic. There is time to measure, evaluate and take appropriately focused, intelligent preventive action. But there is also no excuse for delay in taking action. The goal is to keep environmental exposures low to minimize risk.

Ensuring proper ventilation is another important measure that can reduce exposures to PCBs and improve other aspects of indoor air quality issues in classrooms. Ensuring adequate facilities and time for hand washing — especially before eating — is another important measure that can reduce exposures to PCBs.

How much exposure would start worrying you?

We are most concerned about exposures to pregnant teachers and other adult women of childbearing age in the schools because exposures to even low levels of toxic chemicals during pregnancy have been shown to have the potential to cause injury to the developing fetal brain. There are no safe thresholds for chemical exposure during pregnancy.

“Fetal brain damage to babies in the womb is the most important human health effect of PCB exposure.”

I understand that it is difficult to provide certainty about any health risks, but is there anything that makes people susceptible to developing a disease because of exposure to PCBs? Is it related to weight? Age? Preschool students versus elementary or high school students?

Unborn children in the mother’s womb are the group within the population at greatest risk of injury for the reasons detailed above. Young children may be at increased risk of exposure to PCBs because of age-appropriate hand-to-mouth behaviors. The air-level guidelines set by the E.P.A. take these factors into account and are more protective for younger classes than older ones.

What can parents do to protect their children?

To avoid exposure, parents can familiarize themselves with sources and routes by which PCBs enter the human body. Diet is the most important of these exposure sources, and therefore it is especially important to avoid eating contaminated fish. Parents can check local fish advisories and follow guidelines on recommended fish intake. This is especially important for pregnant women and young children.

Parents can also learn what products contain PCBs. If they find PCB-containing products in their homes like old electrical equipment, they should properly dispose of it and clean up spills or leaks immediately. When they are in doubt about how to dispose of such equipment, they should contact the city’s Department of Health or the E.P.A.

Parents can advocate for regular inspections and proper maintenance of
existing fluorescent light fixtures in schools. Prompt cleanup of PCB spills and replacement of faulty equipment when possible will minimize children’s exposures to PCB containing materials. This type of work should be done when children are not present in the building.

On a national level, advocating for reforms is key to this issue. We cannot continue, as we have for too long in the past, to allow chemicals to be placed in the environment only to wonder decades later whether there is a potential for harm to human health, especially for vulnerable populations including pregnant women and young children. Remember, PCBs are just one of many potentially concerning chemicals used widely.

Some parents in Staten Island kept their children at home until the city replaced the light fixtures. Was this sensible or an overreaction, from your point of view?

“We cannot continue, as we have for too long in the past, to allow chemicals to be placed in the environment only to wonder decades later whether there is a potential for harm to human health.”
It’s often very difficult for parents to know what to do as these situations unfold. The take-home message for parents is that in conducting a pilot study, New York City is one of the first school districts in the country to address PCBs in the classroom.

PCBs at the levels found in schools in New York City today will not make any child or any teacher acutely ill. In fact, compared with air levels reported in some other studies, air levels reported in NYC schools have been quite low. Therefore, in this particular instance we would say certainly send your child to school. The benefits of going to school far outweigh any risk from PCBs in the school environment.

Are there other more general health risks related to attending public school in New York City?

It can be very challenging for schools to decide which environmental concern deserves top priority and often requires a school-by-school assessment. The E.P.A.’s Tools for Schools Action Kit, available at , can help schools assess indoor air quality issues and ensure a healthy environment in school buildings.

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