Few would argue there are higher priorities than protecting children from harm. We agree with the need to provide protection for children, and want to see that protection extended to those who work with children in the places where they spend vast amounts of time: schools.
Our work to identify and eliminate toxic chemicals in schools has been ongoing for decades, but a big push in recent years has been targeting polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs. While the government banned the manufacture of PCBs in the U.S. in 1979, the chemicals remain in buildings that were constructed or renovated before or around that date.
PCBs are a group of human-made compounds that contaminate air, water, land, and sediments. They last for decades in the environment, building up in the food chain, causing toxic effects to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in people and animals. PCBs also cause cancer in animals and are believed to cause cancer in people.
In 2014, the Washington Legislature passed a law requiring state agencies to purchase PCB-free products whenever possible. In 2015, we culminated years of research and data with the release of a chemical action plan addressing PCBs. The report made a number of strong recommendations to reduce PCBs in the state, including:
- Identifying PCB-containing light ballasts in schools and other public buildings, and encourage their replacement with safer, more energy efficient PCB-free fixtures
- Assessing schools and other public buildings for the presence of PCB-containing building materials
- Developing and promoting best management practices to contain PCBs in building materials, both in structures currently in use and those planned for remodel or demolition
- Learning more about what products contain PCBs, and promoting the use of processes that don't inadvertently generate PCBs — starting with an alternatives assessment for pigments and dyes
- Expanding environmental monitoring to identify new areas requiring cleanup and to investigate air deposition
- Conducting a public education campaign
The Legislature provided funding in 2019 to begin tackling some of these recommendations, which led to our efforts to help schools swap out their old light ballasts. We are collaborating with the Washington Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to conduct a survey of schools to determine just how big the problem is. Many PCB-containing light ballasts have already been removed through energy efficiency upgrades, so finding those that remain is the priority. We're working to expand our outreach and follow up with schools to increase survey response rates. Ecology will use the survey data to hire a contractor to find, remove, replace, and dispose of their old PCB-containing light ballasts. The challenge now is to identify what barriers there are to schools filling out the survey, and that work is currently ongoing.
A bigger issue
It would be wonderful if we could simply replace all the light ballasts in schools across the state and call the PCB problem solved, but unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. PCBs are also present in old building materials like door and window caulking, paint, roofing and siding made of galbestos (a type of corrosion-resistant material created by melting zinc with asbestos), and various forms of joint material. These sources, too, can create an unhealthy environment in schools and other buildings, and pose a risk to human health and the environment when they leach out.
Stormy weather disturbing construction debris or pressure washing buildings can move PCBs into stormwater, and PCBs in the air can be tracked outdoors, into cars, busses, homes, and more. When they reach waterways, these contaminants are then absorbed by aquatic life. We’ve been working with our partners for years to identify and address sources of PCB contamination, including those that affect water, sediment, and those found in new and used consumer products that cause direct human exposure. This work with stakeholders and the public continues to be a priority.
What’s being done
Ecology and our partners are actively working on a program to address the remaining recommendations laid out by the PCB Chemical Action Plan. When the program is fully developed, it will provide clear guidance to property owners, developers, contractors, and local governments. In the meantime, we're grateful to the Legislature for its continued support that helps make these critical protections possible. To date, we have:
- Engaged in a robust public education effort, creating webpages, writing articles, and conducting presentations on the dangers of PCBs in building materials and light ballasts.
- Worked to develop guidance for property owners on how to safely renovate or demolish buildings without releasing PCBs or other hazardous materials into the environment.
- Begun reaching out to schools that may have PCB-containing light ballasts so Ecology and Health staff can work with them to assess and mitigate the issue before it becomes a larger problem.
- Tested a variety of consumer products, particularly those likely to be used by children, looking for the presence of PCBs.
What you can do
If you belong to a school or organization that uses school facilities and believe it may have PCB-containing light ballasts (here’s how to identify them), reach out to project staff right away. We can help school officials determine if any dangers from PCBs are present and possibly help find funding to mitigate the problem.
If you manage or work in a public building that you believe may have PCBs in the building materials, first consult the EPA’s PCBs in Building Materials fact sheet. If you’ve already tested for PCB contamination, you can report elevated levels of PCBs (50 parts per million) on our Statewide Environmental Incidents Report Form.
If you have any questions regarding PCBs, please consult some of the resource links we’ve provided on this page. PCBs are just one of many hazardous chemicals that threaten our communities and the environment, but by staying vigilant and informed we can fight together to reduce — and someday eliminate — PCB exposure altogether.