A look inside Vermont’s unprecedented school PCB testing program

All eyes are on Vermont as the state embarks on a first-in-the-nation program to rid school buildings statewide of PCBs.
Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 6:40 PM EST
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PROCTOR, Vt. (WCAX) - All eyes are on Vermont as the state embarks on a first-in-the-nation program to rid school buildings statewide of PCBs. Triggered by the discovery of the toxic chemical at the former Burlington High School, The Legislature in 2021 tasked state environmental officials to develop a program to pinpoint contamination in all schools constructed or renovated before 1980. Reporter Christina Guessferd got an exclusive inside look at the testing process for at-risk schools.

Vermont is on the leading edge of what the world’s leading PCB experts say will inevitably become a national public health problem, leaving state officials and residents to navigate uncharted territory and likely create a blueprint for the rest of the country. The man-made chemicals were primarily produced by the chemical giant Monsanto between 1930 and 1979, before the EPA banned them.

For half a century, PCBs were commonly used in building materials and electrical equipment in institutional settings throughout Vermont. The carcinogen is hazardous at very low levels, harming immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.

Proctor High School is one of about 325 schools required to participate in Vermont’s PCB testing program. We recently tagged along as an environmental consultant tested the classrooms.

“It’s called a low-flow air sampling pump, and it is strapped onto a tripod to an average child’s breathing level, between three and four feet off the ground,” explained Craig Sterritt with Harper Environmental Associates, one of six consulting firms hired to conduct the indoor air testing.

Sterritt says the pumps are located throughout the building and pull air into clear tubing where a cartridge captures PCB emissions. “Right now, we’re on the basement level of the school where there are classrooms and gym facilities and the cafeteria,” he said. “It’s a 24-hour sampling period. And the reason it’s that long is that the levels of PCBs that we’re looking at are very, very, very low.”

The levels are measured in microscopic amounts -- nanograms per cubic meter -- but even the tiniest concentrations are a huge hazard. Sterritt says they will sample more than a third of the rooms in any given school -- up to half in smaller buildings like Proctor. “The first step of all this is we come in and do what’s called a building inventory. And we go into every room and area in the school, every single interior space, and we identify every single material that could possibly contain PCBs.

Paints, caulks, glues, plastics, fluorescent light ballasts, transformers, ceiling tiles, window glazing, spray-on fireproofing are all common culprits. Over time, the materials break down, releasing the cancer-causing chemical into the air -- toxic air that students, staff, and faculty may breathe in for years.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: How would you explain to parents why every classroom in every school doesn’t need to be tested?

Craig Sterritt: Schools are pretty cookie-cutter. and the fourth-grade classroom’s usually right next to the fifth-grade classroom and made with the exact same material.

The samples collected in schools are shipped to labs like Pace Analytical for processing. Once state officials receive the results, they alert districts. In the worst cases, rooms or entire buildings could be condemned.

“The indoor air sampling that we do serves two purposes. One is to see if there is an immediate danger to the health of building occupants,” Sterritt said. “And the second is to -- if there are PCBs in a room, they’re coming from a source.”

The state is covering the cost for environmental consultants like Harper Environmental to test the indoor air in the estimated 325 schools. But every effort after that is on the district’s dime. The cost to investigate the PCB source and cleanup contamination comes out of the taxpayers’ pocket, and schools that exceed the action levels aren’t allowed to opt-out.

The Vermont Legislature has earmarked three pots of funding -- $4.5 million for the initial testing; $32 million for assessment, mitigation, and remediation; and $2.5 million for urgent source sampling and cleanup.

Mitigation reduces concentrations in the air by improving ventilation, replacing HVAC filters, or wiping down surfaces. Remediation removes the PCB-containing material.

Whether that’s enough money will depend on the number of schools with contamination and the severity of the problem in each.

State officials propose the districts foot the bills upfront and that the state then reimburse them up to 80% of the costs. But the Legislature hasn’t given that plan the greenlight yet. “If it wasn’t for the Legislature making this a priority, we would not be looking at it,” said Patricia Coppolino with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. She says that PCB contamination historically has been regulated federally but that Vermont took the issue into its own hands, designing a unique and efficient approach. Rather than sampling building materials at random, the state’s method is to detect the effect first and then eliminate the cause. “In the spaces where PCBs exist, then you focus your time and effort there.”

Coppolino says other states are already asking Vermont officials for guidance, as leaders explore similar mandates and consider establishing programs of their own. She says collaboration and communication are key while the country faces a steep learning curve. “Building a program from the ground up and having to implement it pretty quickly afterward has been difficult. But with some really great partners, it’s been something that we can really hang our hats on and say that we’re doing the best that we can,” she said.

The testing schedule prioritizes the oldest schools and those serving the youngest students in the most disadvantaged communities. Since testing started last September 2022, the DEC has published the results from 19 schools. Of those, seven contain contaminated spaces, two of which demand immediate action. And those totals are moving targets as new results roll in from the labs weekly.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: What is it like for you and your company to work on this first-in-the-nation, unprecedented PCB program?

Craig Sterritt: This is the largest scale investigation that I’ve ever worked on... because there are so many pieces to it, and being able to be a part of a team that is learning how to solve this problem... it’s been an interesting and a rewarding process.

The DEC has requested a one-year extension to complete the sampling phase, pushing the deadline from July 2025 to July 2026. Officials also say the $4.5 million dedicated to the program probably isn’t sufficient. They’re planning to ask the Legislature for more financing in 2024.

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