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Some BHS parents push for return to school, PCBs or not

Published: Oct. 8, 2020 at 6:14 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Some Burlington High School parents say they want their kids back in the classroom without waiting for a cleanup of PCBs found in the school last month. While state health officials acknowledge there’s only a small chance of someone getting sick from the carcinogens, they say there are other serious consequences to consider.

“I would be totally comfortable with my daughter going back to school right now,” said Greg Fanslow, a BHS parent. In fact, he says it’s imperative that students like his daughter, a first-year student, return to in-person instruction immediately. “She literally got one day of high school before they closed it down again, and that was devastating.”

But while Fanslow is worried about his daughter, he’s more concerned about the kids who don’t have the same resources -- students who rely on special education, school lunches, and a safe escape. At first, he says he trusted the Vt. Health Department’s recommendation to close BHS and the district’s decision to comply. But after doing his own research, he’s not convinced it’s necessary. “If we lived pretty much anywhere else, we would not have this problem,” he said.

That’s because the Vermont Health Department’s PCB standards are 40 times stricter than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s. While state officials recommend a building’s air have no more than 15 nanograms of PCBs per cubic meter, the EPA suggests less than 600, and the World Health Organization sites 300.

“I trust the EPA and their judgment to come up with a feasible, technical, practicable standard. I am skeptical that the Department of Health has made it so low that it’s maybe not technically practicable to achieve those levels,” said Miles Waite, a Hydrogeologist with Waite-Heindel Environmental Management in Burlington, and also a BHS parent.

His environmental consulting business tests air, water, and soil quality in commercial and residential properties. He agrees the state’s PCB threshold is too conservative. “It opens up the opportunity for a lot of complications,” he said. Complications like closing an entire high school campus.

“The Health Department supports the recommendation for students and staff not to reoccupy buildings A through E at this time,” said Vt. State Toxicologist Sarah Vose. She says she stands by the district’s decision because any PCB levels at all are cause for concern. Vose says the department’s screening value considers research conducted in the past 26 years while the EPA does not. Research that shows PCBs can harm the reproductive, immune, endocrine, and nervous systems in as little as a year of consistent exposure. Plus, she says those levels could increase during the winter when there’s less airflow.

But Parents like Fanslow argue by potentially protecting students' physical health, the school is sacrificing their mental wellbeing. “It’s effectively holding an entire community hostage,” he said.

Those PCBs were used in construction materials when the school was built in the ’60s. Vose says consultants are planning a building materials survey to help identify specific sources of PCBs, which they hope will guide mitigation measures.

In the meantime, the community is still waiting to hear from the Burlington School District about alternate workspaces for students.

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