Vermont lowers bar on recommended PCB levels in schools

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 6:29 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2021 at 7:09 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont health officials are changing their guidance on what officials consider safe levels of PCB in schools.

Burlington High School last year was forced to permanently close its campus after samples of the potentially cancer-causing chemical found in air samples exceeded state screening levels. The discovery triggered concern about the safety of schools across the state built during the same time period.

The Department of Health previously recommended no more than 15 nanograms of PCBs per cubic meter in a building’s air. But officials say they only recently learned that detecting that amount in any indoor air environment is common. They say the previous standard would have meant many schools would require fixes and was not practical.

This week, officials announced substantially less stringent “school action levels” which would be much more reasonable for schools to mitigate. The health department now says PCB levels can be toxic to students and teachers if they exceed:

  • 100 nanograms per cubic meter in the air of buildings used by 7th graders to adults.
  • 60 nanograms per cubic meter in the air of buildings used by kindergarteners to 6th graders.
  • 30 nanograms per cubic meter in the air of buildings used by pre-kindergartners.

The new guidelines are the result of a law that went into effect this summer requiring the state to test PCB levels in all schools built before 1980.

“We started working on this when the legislation was passed, realizing that this would be a very large scale testing, a scale at which has never been done by any other state in the country. We’ll be the first one to test most of the schools in the state. In 2013 we developed the screening level, that was a very small project -- four schools were tested and at that time we did not discuss having an action level. Also, at that time DEC did not have authority over PCB releases to indoor air,” said Sarah Vose, the Vermont state toxicologist.

Under the law, the DEC received $4.5 million to conduct the testing and has the authority to enforce PCB standards if a school’s levels exceed what the state deems safe. But the DEC hasn’t yet determined what those regulatory standards will be. The health department’s school action levels are just a recommendation to help the DEC decide.

The question becomes how will these new recommendations impact the Burlington Schools District’s decision to close its high school? The district was encouraged to shutter the campus based on the state’s 15-nanogram-per-cubic-meter screening level. But many of those buildings’ levels don’t exceed the health department’s new recommendation.

The superintendent and the leadership of the school board met Thursday night to discuss the new standards and what impact that might have on the district’s decision to abandon BHS and pursue plans for a new high school.

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