One-third of all public schools in the United States could be contaminated with toxic PCBs, according to a new report from Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
The report could be the most comprehensive investigation into the presence of this toxic substance in public schools since they were first used in classrooms across the United States more than 70 years ago.
It found that up to 14 million American children could be exposed to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. The report estimated that it could cost upward of $52 billion to rid schools of this cancer-causing chemical.
“The alarm bells going off in our schools should be for the potential risk that toxic PCBs pose to our students and teachers,” Markey said in a press release.
PCBs were used in light fixtures and caulking in schools built or renovated between 1950 and 1979, at a time when thousands of schools were built to accommodate the Baby Boomer generation.
They were valuable because of their flexibility and ability to withstand extreme temperatures, but were banned in the late 1970s after being connected to an assortment of health problems, such as cancer, delayed cognitive development and attention disorders. A 2016 Harvard study found that PCBs could be present in nearly 26,000 schools across the country.
Most of Markey’s findings mirror and expand upon issues earlier reported by public radio stations KPCC and WNPR, and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The stories showed that while federal regulations require schools to clean up PCBs if they’re detected, schools aren’t required to test for them. They also found that the EPA doesn’t require school officials to inform students, parents or teachers if PCBs are found in their school.
The report also confirmed earlier media revelations that showed remediation and enforcement efforts vary widely from region to region, and the main factors that prevent many schools from handling this problem are lack of money and information. Markey suggested the EPA update its guidance and improve record-keeping and transparency efforts.
Some of Markey’s recommendations echoed Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who last year called on the EPA to improve how it handles PCBs in schools, and urged Congress to set aside money for cleanup costs.
As schools age and fall apart, maintenance costs also rise. The Center for Green Schools estimates it would cost $542 billion over the next 10 years to rehab old schools across the country. This is about $30 billion less than what the U.S. spends on defense each year.
David DesRoches is an education reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.