By Lois Gibbs, Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice
Was your child’s school built before 1979? It’s worth it to take a moment and find out! If so, a group of chemicals called PCBs may be lurking in the light fixtures and caulking. PCBs were previously used as insulation in electrical equipment until the federal government banned their use in 1979 after declaring their harmful impact on the environment and human health. It was one of the small and only victories of the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Unfortunately, these nasty chemicals are persistent, and they continue to be a hazard in buildings, including many schools. Old light fixtures containing PCBs degrade as they age, leaking on to nearby surfaces or evaporating into the air and compromising indoor air quality.
Are PCBs still harmful?
Exposure to PCBs can cause a wide range of adverse health effects including skin irritation, reproductive and developmental effects, immune effects, and liver damage. PCBs have a unique characteristic that allows them to accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans, remaining in our bodies and causing damage over time. According to the EPA, the data strongly suggests that PCBs are probable human carcinogens. If students or faculty are exposed to PCBs, it can pose short or long-term health effects. Of greatest concern in a school setting, is that PCBs can negatively impact a child’s ability to learn and remember. We want our kids to have the best learning environment in order to reach their potential!
The persistent and bioaccumulative nature of these chemicals is why there is an important section of the Safe Chemicals Act, which would require immediate protections from chemicals that have similar properties. We applaud Senator Lautenberg for including this important provision in his bill. Let us learn from our mistakes.
What can you do?
To find out if your child’s school is safe from PCBs, ask your school principal or local school district about the age of the school and if it has undergone lighting replacement renovations. If the school was built prior to 1979 it could have fluorescent light fixtures that contain PCBs. Find out if light fixtures have been removed or replaced after 1979. If the light fixtures have NOT been replaced:
- Contact your principal to request replacement of the PCB contaminated light fixtures
- Educate and communicate with other teachers and parents to build support for addressing PCBs in your school district
Children are required to spend 6-8 hours a day in school. Shouldn’t they be provided with an optimal learning environment? They deserve the right to toxic-free schools!
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