Cindy Crawford recently pulled her children out of Malibu high school, expressing concern that the school is contaminated with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a chemical known to cause cancer and a host of other health problems including neurological impairment. This is not a problem limited to Malibu– many schools and public buildings built between the 1930’s and 1970’s are contaminated with PCBs, which were used in caulking and a variety of building materials. The chemical was banned in the United States in 1976, but this known carcinogen still lurks in the dust, air, and soil in and around our schools. Unlike other known toxins, such as lead, there is no mandatory PCB testing in schools.
What are the risks associated with PCB exposure?
- PCBs can affect the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system and are potentially cancer-causing if they build up in the body over long periods of time.
- PCBs can especially impair thyroid function and neurological development in infants and children.
- PCBs are stored in fat cells and hence not easily excreted.
- Most of our PCB exposure actually comes from food, not caulk and building materials. Because PCBs are stored in animal fat, foods such as meat, fish, and dairy products are a major source of PCB exposure.
Are American children are at risk of PCB exposure at school?
- Yes, many U.S. schools have PCB contamination, especially in caulk and soil. The caulk does not have to be old or peeling to be dangerous. According to the EPA, PCBs can actually be transmitted from intact calk into classroom air and dust.
- If PCBs are found in a building, IT IS REQUIRED BY FEDERAL LAW that steps be taken to remedy the situation. Yet testing for PCBs is still optional.
Did Cindy Crawford do the right thing pulling her kids out of school?
- Although I applaud her activism on this important issue, I think Cindy Crawford went too far pulling her kids out of school. Air and dust samples from her children’s school had levels of PCBs that are acceptable according to the EPA’s standards. The high levels of PCBs were only in caulk. As long as her children weren’t touching the caulk, their risks are minimal.
- As a parent, you have to weigh risks/benefits of everything your children do. The risk of PCB exposure at a school with negative air and dust testing is minimal, and the cost of missed school is significant.
For more information on PCBs, including PCBs in caulking and school buildings, see the EPA’s fact sheet.