PCBs in Caulk and Light Ballasts: A Thorny Regulatory Issue for Schools and Others


Polychlorinated biphenyls (“PCBs”) are back in the news again. Though there is significant debate regarding the level of toxicity of PCBs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has labeled PCBs a “probable carcinogen;” this determination is hotly contested by many segments of both industry and academia who counter that the most recent science suggests otherwise. Nonetheless, EPA is currently pursuing an aggressive regulatory and enforcement agenda to eliminate certain uses of PCBs.

PCBs drew widespread attention in the mid-1970s when Hudson River sediments were found to contain elevated levels of PCBs. Due to concerns about consuming PCB contaminated fish, the state of New York banned all fishing on the Upper Hudson in 1976. The issue caught the attention of Congress, leading to a 1978 federal ban on the further production of PCBs. In 1983, EPA declared a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River to be a Superfund site and ordered certain parties to remove or otherwise address the sediment. The costly cleanup effort continues to this day.

PCBs were historically used in a variety of products, including some plastics, paints, caulks, lubricating oils, insulation, and electrical equipment; many PCB-containing products manufactured prior to 1978 are still in use today. Recently, there has been growing concern among parents’ groups, teachers’ unions, and EPA over potential sources of PCBs in many of our nation’s older schools. In September of 2009, EPA undertook a nationwide campaign to educate schools about testing for and removing PCB-contaminated caulk.

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