Leaking Lights Mean Toxic Classrooms

PCBS—short for polychlorinated biphenyls—may have been long banned from production and commerce, but the chemicals have proven stubbornly persistent. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests revealed that schoolchildren in New York City, Massachusetts, Oregon and North Dakota have been exposed to the dangerous chemicals (known to cause cancer, immune system problems, reproductive system damage and other health effects) via leaking lighting fixtures.

The EPA first ordered tests of five NYC elementary schools last year, according to a report from public radio station WNYC and found airborne PCB levels several times higher than its allowable limit as a result of old lighting fixtures. Specifically, the PCBs were used to insulate older fluorescent tube lights. More than 700 New York City schools alone have outdated, PCB-containing lighting fixtures that could also leak and contaminate classrooms—as do many more across the country.

Besides the chronic health impacts driven by PCB exposure, David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, told the station that: “…one of greatest concerns in schools is [that PCBs] are, like lead poisoning, substances that reduce the ability to learn.”

Custodians in city schools have now been alerted to identify any tell-tale signs (such as stains) indicating leaking fixtures, but worried parents say a more comprehensive approach to replacing outdated fixtures is needed. E Magazine’s cover story on polluted schools examines the lack of regulations around where schools are built, regulations that might protect students from toxic exposures that come from buildings or nearby waste sites. New, stricter, guidelines are in the works, and open to public comment until February 18, 2011.