There have been many recent press accounts regarding the discovery of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in certain building materials in Malibu California schools.  The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) retained Environ, an environmental firm, to serve as their consultant to evaluate the PCBs’ significance.  Environ tested indoor air samples, caulk samples and building material wipe samples for PCBs; based on the test results they developed an EPA approved plan for managing the PCBs in place.  But does this approach do enough to make the schools safe?

The Air Sampling Results

PCBs in school air are the primary health concern because all students and staff are breathing the air and would be exposed to PCBs if they were present.  Results of indoor air testing at the Malibu High School and at the Juan Cabrillo Elementary School show concentrations to be less than USEPA’s Public Health Values.  These levels are hundreds of time less than would be required to produce health effects.  Thus indoor air PCB concentration do not pose risk.

Wipe Sample Test Results

A secondary health concern is the potential for direct contact exposures to PCBs on walls, ceilings and other indoor school surfaces.  USEPA method wipe tests are used to evaluate surfaces for PCBs.  Wipe tests performed at the Malibu schools this summer found that PCBs were below USEPA’s concern level.  Thus, PCBs on building surfaces do not pose a risk.

Results of PCB Testing of Caulking

Caulking is the pliable material used to fill the narrow gaps between windows, walls and doors.  It is also used to fill joints between different construction materials like brick and concrete.  Ideally, caulk should remain soft and pliable for decades, but in practice this is hard to achieve.  When added to caulk, PCBs were terrific at helping caulk achieve these goals; until its use was banned.

Caulk is a building material often found with high PCB concentrations.  Some caulk samples from the Malibu schools do contain PCBs at greater than the USEPA limit, but this result has no bearing on health risk.  The positive air tests and wipe tests are relevant to health risk, the caulk tests are not.

Overall Evaluation of PCB Health Risk

Based on the test results for both Malibu schools, there does not appear to be cause for concern about adverse health effects from PCBs at the schools for either students or staff.

The Bigger PCB Issue

It’s well worth noting that no correlation has been found between the presence of PCBs in schools and adverse health effects in either students or staff.  This result is not surprising when you consider that the PCB exposure students and staff may receive is hundreds of times less than the amount required to cause a human health effect.

In fact, scientists have known for some time that risks from PCBs were seriously exaggerated as a result of a 1968 poisoning incident in Japan.  This incident, known as the Yusho rice oil poisoning, was thought to have been caused by PCBs and it received wide international attention.  It was not until many years later that Japanese scientists using better equipment discovered that the poisoning had not been caused by PCBs.  However, by then PCBs had been banned across much of the globe.

Almost every press article about PCBs includes these words in the opening line: either “cancer causing PCBs were discovered . . . ” or “probable cancer causing PCBs were discovered . . . “.  However, the scientific evidence (and there is quite a bit of this evidence) indicates that PCBs do not cause human cancer.  PCBs can cause liver cancer in rats, but rat liver physiology is different than human liver physiology.  Evidence of a link between PCBs and human liver cancer has not been found.

So while arguments about the risks from PCBs in schools are likely to continue, the science on human PCB toxicity is largely settled.  Remember that generations of students attended these same schools with these same PCBs for decades before anyone ever thought about it.  Everything points to these Americans being the healthiest and longest lived of any generation yet.

While the first alarms bells about PCBs in school buildings may have sounded in New England, the echo of that call-to-arms can now be heard on the west coast.   The discovery of PCBs in Malibu California schools and the press coverage that followed, have shattered the myth that PCBs in schools are only found in older east coast buildings.  For those following the Malibu PCB news, it’s hard to deny the drama that only southern California brings to a story; it’s not hard to imagine this  being the basis for a made for TV movie.

What are the facts?

According to a Fact Sheet dated July 27, 2014 by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) an evaluation of school building environmental quality was started after three Malibu High School employees were diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  Following consultation with California environmental and health agencies, the district retained Environ, an environmental engineering firm to assess conditions in the Malibu High School and in the Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.

Environ’s evaluation included testing air, surfaces and certain building materials (paint and caulk) for PCBs.  Note that there is no known correlation between PCB exposure and human or animal thyroid cancer.  While PCBs were found throughout the schools, the detected concentrations were in most case well below USEPA regulatory and public health levels.  No air concentrations exceeded EPA recommended levels, although some caulk samples contained PCB concentrations greater than EPA’s 50 ppm regulatory criteria.

On August 14, 2014 the USEPA Region 9 Regional Administrator issued a letter in which he approved of the plans and actions taken by SMMUSD without exception.  The next day the SMMUSD issued a press release which informed the public that the district’s response to PCBs in the schools had won the endorsement of the USEPA.

What was the public reaction?

In 2013, after PCBs were found in the schools, an organization called Malibu Unites began seeking more testing and ultimately the removal of PCBs from the schools.  The group boasts a membership that includes “parents, teachers, community members, celebrity environmentalists, medical professionals, scientists, and environmental organizations working together for healthy, toxin-free schools”.   The presence of “celebrity environmentalists” has drawn a good deal of attention and press coverage to the group.

Here is an excerpt from an August 29, 2014 article published in the Los Angeles Register that helps convey the sense of frustration felt by the more concerned public:

“Unhappy with the school district’s current clean-up plan, Mayor Skylar Peak said he plans to demand further testing of toxic chemicals at the city’s public schools.

“The City of Malibu doesn’t have any control over its public schools because of state law, but council members decided to put the item on the next agenda after more than an hour of public comments from concerned parents during Monday’s City Council meeting.

“At least 24 parents have taken their children out of Malibu public schools because of elevated levels of PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyl – found in at least five classrooms at Malibu High School.  PCBs are found in window caulking, and sometimes the lighting, of structures built from the 1950s until the chemical was banned by the federal government in 1979.

“Parents and Peak want the district to test the source: the caulk.  The district says the classrooms are safe to re-enter.  Currently, the district is relying on “best practices” of cleaning, dust sampling and air sampling to identify PCB levels”.

Also, a notice of intent to sue the district and the EPA pursuant to the Toxic Substances Control Act was served by the Vititoe Law Group and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) on August 20, 2014.   The notice gives SMMUSD 60 days to remove toxic materials from the schools or face a federal lawsuit.

Is Malibu the tipping point for PCBs in schools?

In his 2000 best-selling book “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell explored the process by which some trends achieve great popularity, while others eventually fade.  The issue of PCBs in schools and other buildings has been simmering just below the surface of public awareness for several years, but outside of the small community of regulators, environmental lawyers and technical consultants, the full potential significance of PCBs in schools and other  buildings has not been understood.

For this post I am not offering my own analysis or opinion about the specific circumstances or health risks associated with PCBs in the Malibu schools.  What I am questioning is whether the Malibu PCB situation may draw sufficient public awareness that it becomes the tipping point that triggers an increased national awareness and policy development regarding PCBs in schools. We’ll see.