The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced steps that building owners and school administrators should take to reduce exposure to PCBs from caulk in many buildings built or renovated between 1950 and 1978.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are man-made chemicals that persist in the environment and were widely used in construction materials and electrical products before 1978. PCBs can affect the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system and are potentially cancer-causing if they build up in the body over long periods of time.
"PCBs have been banned for the last 30 years for most uses," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "But unfortunately, high levels of PCBs are present in many buildings and facilities constructed prior to the PCB ban, including most recently some schools.
"We're concerned about the potential risks associated with exposure to these PCBs, and we're recommending practical, common-sense steps to reduce this exposure as we improve our understanding of the science.
EPA is also providing additional guidance to help building owners and administrators identify the extent of potential risks and determine whether mitigation steps are necessary, Jackson said.
"Local communities and governments have constrained resources that make this a particularly challenging and sensitive situation."
The agency has created http://www.epa.gov/pcbsincaulk with updated information on this issue. Concerned parties may also call an EPA hotline toll free at 1-888-835-5372.
Although Congress banned the manufacture and most uses of PCBs in 1976 and they were phased out in 1978, there is evidence that many buildings across the country constructed or renovated from 1950 to 1978 may have PCBs at high levels in the caulk around windows and door frames, between masonry columns and in other masonry building materials.
Exposure to these PCBs may occur as a result of their release from the caulk into the air, dust, surrounding surfaces and soil and through direct contact. EPA has calculated prudent public health levels that maintain PCB exposures below the "reference dose" - the amount of PCB exposure that EPA does not believe will cause harm. Those levels vary depending on the age group and use assumptions about potential PCB exposures from other sources, such as diet.
Although this is a serious issue, the potential presence of PCBs in buildings should not be a cause for alarm, the agency says. If buildings were erected or renovated between 1950 and 1978, EPA recommends that owners implement steps to minimize exposure to potentially contaminated caulk by:
- Cleaning air ducts
- Improving ventilation by opening windows and using or installing exhaust fans where possible
- Cleaning frequently to reduce dust and residue inside buildings
- Using a wet or damp cloth or mop to clean surfaces
- Not sweeping with dry brooms and minimizing the use of dusters in areas near potential PCB-containing caulk
- Using vacuums with high efficiency particulate air filters
- Washing hands with soap and water often, particularly before eating and drinking
- Washing children's toys often
EPA also recommends testing peeling, brittle, cracking or deteriorating caulk directly for the presence of PCBs and removing the caulk if PCBs are present at significant levels. Alternately, the building owner can assume the PCBs are present and proceed directly to remove deteriorating caulk.
Building owners and facility managers should also consider testing to determine if PCB levels in the air exceed EPA's suggested public health levels.