June 01, 2017

PCBs: The Unknown Building Material That Can Cost Millions to Address

Patricia L. Boye-Williams

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were manufactured and used from the late 1920s until they were banned in the United States by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1979. PCBs were added to solids and liquids to create stable, flexible materials. They were added to transformer oil, fluorescent light ballasts, caulks, paints, window glazing, cements, adhesives, and sealants, among other substances. Like asbestos-containing materials, these PCB-containing materials were flame resistant and long-lasting and made ideal building materials: if a building is old enough, caulk that looks “like new” may be decades old and contain PCBs. As a result of their long lifespan, PCB-containing materials remain in many buildings today. In particular, many buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1979 (including schools, college campuses, public pools and recreational facilities, water treatment plants, apartment buildings, and commercial structures) have PCBs present. One report estimates that between 12,960 and 25,920 schools in the United States (15–20 percent of schools) have PCBs present in caulk. Office of Sen. Edward J. Markey, The ABCs of PCBs: A Toxic Threat to America’s Schools 1 (2016) (Sen. Markey Report).

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