School Daze: PCBs in New York City Schools

By Caroline Newton 

Working in the Enforcement Division of EPA’s New York City office has made me think of environmental issues and public health risks differently than before.  I find it both fascinating and alarming how the environment directly and indirectly impacts the people in the surrounding community. 

One topic that I have paid increasing attention to (and the media has as well) is PCBs in schools. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are man-made organic chemicals that were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications until their manufacture was banned in 1979. They were commonly mixed into caulk, a material used to seal windows and doors. Although the caulk that we purchase today does not contain PCBs, caulk in buildings such as schools that were built before 1979 may still have caulk that contains PCBs.  Over time, caulk can deteriorate and the PCBs become airborne, and people can inhale them. PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system. 

An intact ballast from a typical pre-1979 fluorescent light fixture.

A source of PCBs in schools that was less widely known until recently is lighting fixtures. Certain older lighting fixtures contain ballasts that have PCBs in them.  When these ballasts age, they can crack or even spark and catch fire, causing PCBs to enter the air that students breathe. 

Over 700 of NYC’s public schools were found to have older, PCB-containing lighting fixtures. Inspections performed by EPA about a year ago in approximately seven NYC school buildings showed that many of these ballasts had cracked and were leaking PCBs.  As a result, NYC is taking on an energy improvement program that will incorporate the removal of all PCB-containing lights from its schools. The New York City School Construction Authority posts this type of information on its website

Schools throughout the country may have similar problems. In November 2011, EPA Region 2 sent letters to Superintendents in NY and NJ informing them of this problem and encouraging them to take an inventory of the lights in their schools to determine their age and potential for having PCB-containing ballasts. 

If your child or someone you know attends a school that was built before 1979, you may want to speak to the Superintendent or someone at the school about this topic and ask questions. If it was built prior to 1979, have the lighting fixtures been replaced since? Does the school have a protocol for dealing with possible PCB-containing ballasts? You may want to share with them EPA’s guidance on Proper Maintenance, Removal, and Disposal of PCB-Containing Fluorescent Light Ballasts

About the Author: Caroline began her EPA career as a summer intern in Public Affairs while studying meteorology at Cornell University. After graduation, she joined EPA’s Environmental Careers Program, during which she went on several rotations. She was water enforcement inspector, helped plan events for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and spent two months in EPA headquarters’ Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.  When she finished the Environmental Careers Program she became the Regional 2 Enforcement Coordinator. She currently lives on Long Island and enjoys spending time with her new dog, Penny.

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