How widespread is Vt. school PCB problem?

Published: Oct. 7, 2020 at 6:02 PM EDT
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COLCHESTER, Vt. (WCAX) - How widespread is the problem of PCB contamination in Vermont schools and could your children be at risk? Those are questions state health and education officials have been trying to figure out since the harmful chemicals forced Burlington High School to close last month.

PCBs were banned in construction materials in 1979 but there is no statewide data available on where they were used in schools, and that has many districts looking for answers.

“I think it would be good to get the guidance from them, so all schools are all on the same page,” said Mike Rogers, the chair of the Colchester School Board. He says while he recognizes PCBs could be a problem in his district, he’s counting and waiting on the state to come up with a universal plan. “I really trust their leadership and will certainly march to their orders.”

All five Colchester schools were built between the 1950s and 1970s, a time period when PCBs were commonly used in construction materials. Rogers says even though his two sons went through the district and his wife worked in the schools for 25 years, he’s not concerned about PCB contamination. “We have no indication of any problem whatsoever,” he said.

There are no signs of an issue, in part, because none of the schools have been tested for the potentially cancer-causing chemical. In fact, since testing isn’t a state requirement, most districts haven’t even considered it. Given that the levels at Burlington High School were elevated enough for the state to recommend it close indefinitely, we asked Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine if he thinks similar testing should be done in buildings of the same age immediately.

“We, meaning the state, the governor, the secretary and myself, are quite concerned about the situation in Burlington,” Levine said. But he says the pandemic is the state’s priority right now, not addressing the scope of PCBs in other schools. He says eventually they’ll likely develop a pilot program to present to the Legislature when it reconvenes next year. “We’re very much at step one -- just learning the extent of the problem, which we don’t know as of yet.”

State health, education, and environmental officials say there is no comprehensive list of when all of the state’s schools were constructed. So, we reached out to Vermont’s 55 superintendents for that information. Out of the 16 that responded,14 say they have at least one or more schools built between the ’50s and ’70s. All but one of those has no record of recent PCB testing.

Colchester School Board member Curt Taylor says he understands nailing down a solution will take time, and he adds that it should be done on a statewide basis. “A slow and fact-based approach is the best approach,” he said. “I really don’t want to depend upon school boards in the small towns of Vermont to do that research and then understand the issue.”

Levine says it’s premature to expect the state to have a plan since the PCBs in Burlington only became apparent last month.

Both Colchester and Burlington School Board members agree that if the Legislature ultimately adopts a law like Act 66, which led to statewide testing and remediation of lead in school drinking water, the state should fund extensive PCB testing.

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