Health officials: BHS PCB contamination far exceeds state, federal safety levels

Published: Sep. 10, 2020 at 5:04 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2020 at 6:06 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - On what would have been Burlington High School’s second day back on campus this semester, students and staff on Thursday stayed home after air-quality tests showed harmful levels of PCBs in the building.

Caution tape surrounded Burlington High School Thursday, punctuated by danger signs warning of PCBs, chemicals linked to cancer. Now, state officials are working with the district to discuss how to get students back in the classroom.

“They’re face-to-face for the first time and then boom, all of a sudden they’re not,” said Burlington School Superintendent Tom Flanagan. He says it was a frustrating find at the high school and its technical center. Now, some buildings have been deemed unhealthy and teachers must regroup as they prepare for all-remote learning throughout next week. “That will give us a little bit of time to understand the results better.”

Flanagan says they knew PCBs were in soils and construction materials around campus but that it wasn’t until this summer the consultants recommended sampling the air quality. Wednesday, the consultants received results showing the PCB levels in a part of the high school and its technical center are far above threshold safety levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency determines PCB levels between 100 to 600 nanograms per cubic meter is safe. The Vermont Health Department has an even higher safety standard of no more than 15 nanograms per cubic meter. The wing causing concern has levels between 160 and 6,300 nanograms per cubic meter.

“It’s likely that people who spent time in those buildings would have been exposed to some PCBs in the indoor air,” said Vermont state toxicologist Sarah Vose. She says exposure can affect the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. “We won’t be able to find out how much would have been in the air six months ago, one year ago, five, ten years ago. It’s really impossible to go back and recreate that past exposure.”

But Vose says one thing’s for sure -- the contamination has been at the school since it was built in the 1960s. She says the man-made chemicals were used in a lot of construction materials starting in the ’50s. The EPA didn’t ban its use and manufacturing until 1979.

Vose says PCBs were commonly used in caulking material, including the high school. “In places where different types of concrete or bricks or other pieces are held together,” she said. She says the PCB oils in that hard, glue-like material can make their way into the air.

The Burlington School District has labeled campus sections A through F as they investigate. Superintendent Flanagan says renovation consultants have only found the chemical in the F-wing’s air. He says he’s expecting complete results from A through E buildings early next week.

“We’re going to be working really hard on finding a solution to get students back in person,” Flanagan said.

It’s unclear what that solution will be. Flanagan says using a better ventilation system could help bring those levels down. The district is working with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Health Department to come up with other mitigation measures.

State health officials are also talking about whether they’ll recommend other, older schools constructed in the 60s and 70s should get buildings inspected for similar issues.

Related Story:

Burlington High School closed over air quality concerns

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