Has EPA Engaged In Stealth Rollback of School PCB Safequards?

One of our more popular posts  (based on views) has been the 2013 discussion on EPA’s reinterpretation of the regulatory status of building materials that are contaminated by migration of PCBs from PCB bulk product waste as a PCB remediation waste. EPA recently released revised guidance which consists of the following documents:

  • PCBs in Building Materials—Questions & Answers”;
  • Fact sheet titled “Practical Actions for Reducing Exposure to PCBs in Schools and Other Buildings”; and
  • a new webpage titled “Exposure Levels for Evaluation of PCBs in Indoor School Air”

The documents are available Here.

However, according to an analysis posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the new guidance represents a step backward in EPA’s approach to PCBs in schools and other buildings and will result in “thousands of students and teachers occupying schoolrooms containing illegal levels of PCBs”. PEER says that the new guidance:  

  • Fails to recommend testing caulk for PCBs unless the buildings are going to be demolished or reconstructed.
  • The new policy discourages air testing and instead recommends it should be considered only after consultation with the EPA regional PCB Coordinators;;
  • Downplays the need for air testing except in extreme circumstances; and
  • Downgrades the categorization of air testing from “health” or “maximum concentration” levels to factors for “thoughtful consideration” which “should not be interpreted nor applied as ‘bright line’ or ‘not-to-exceed’ criteria.”

In particular, PEER explains that the new “Practical Actions for Reducing Exposure to PCBs in Schools and Other Buildings,” recommends only 1) removal of PCB-containing florescent light ballasts 2) BMPs; 3) removal of PCB-containing building materials during planned renovations or repairs; and 4) considering encapsulation to reduce PCB exposure, which applies only to surrounding materials after PCB building materials are removed during repairs and renovations, and is to be considered on a case-by-case basis by the EPA regional PCB coordinator. Materials identification and testing is not mentioned at all

PEER points out that the old Q&A document identified “Maximum Concentrations of PCBs in School Air” and recommended that the concentrations of PCBs in indoor air be kept “as low as is reasonably achievable and that total PCB exposure be kept below  the reference dose level.” In contrast, the new document refers to “Exposure Levels for Evaluating PCBs in Indoor Air,” and emphasizes that the indoor air levels “were derived to serve as health protective values intended for evaluation purposes. They should not be interpreted nor applied as ‘bright line’ or ‘not-to-exceed’ criteria, but may be used to guide thoughtful evaluation of indoor air quality in schools.”  The new Q & A document also states “Isolated or infrequent indoor air PCB measurements that exceed the exposure levels would not signal unsafe exposure to PCBs. When measured indoor school air PCB concentrations are above these exposure levels, the EPA suggests that school building administrators take further steps to reduce PCB exposure such as reviewing, reevaluating and adjusting BMPs or taking other actions to identify and address PCB sources.”

PEER also noted that EPA has significantly raised the exposure levels for young children – doubling levels to be “thoughtfully considered” for 3 to 6-year olds and raising them for most other age groups.

Because of the changes to the guidance documents. PEER asserts that “owners and  occupants of schools and other buildings will never find out the levels of PCBs to which they are being exposed, and whether they are legally required to be removed, unless and until there is a planned renovation or demolition in which the PCB containing materials will be removed anyway.” Even if a building owner does decide to test the air, the consequences are “greatly attenuated because the standards does not automatically warrant action, but only ‘thoughtful consideration’.”

Several EPA Region offices have launched initiatives that focus on the risks posed by PCBs in schools-particularly PCBs that are found in caulk. PCBs in caulk can volatilize into the air and may be absorbed by surrounding materials, causing wood, brick, concrete and other building materials to become contaminated with PCBs. These secondary sources of PCBs can also volatilize and contaminate the air, dust, and other materials in the building. PCBs in buildings can also volatilize and be deposited into and contaminate surrounding soil. One high profile example has been the discovery of high levels of PCBs in the Malibu and Santa Monica public schools. A Lawsuit has been filed by teachers and parents under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) seeking to compel the Malibu school district to remove the source of the PCBs.  According to the complaint, testing in 2009 and 2010 revealed elevated levels of PCBs in air and soil samples at Malibu Middle and High School (“MHS”) and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School (“JCES”). Additional testing undertaken since then has revealed that caulk and other building materials used at MHS and JCES contain levels of PCBs in excess of standards adopted by the EPA. The complaint alleges that although the school district has, in consultation with the EPA, agreed to remove the PCB-containing materials from certain areas within the schools, the school district has refused or been slow to test additional areas within MHS and JCES that are also likely to contain building materials with levels of PCBs in excess of those allowed by the EPA. A federal district court recently denied a motion to dismiss filed by the school district.

It is unclear if the changes in the PCB guidance documents is a result of pushback from local school authorities concerned over the costs of complying with the PCB requirements. 

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