What is Happening With the Air Quality at U-32?

This article was written by Isabel Moustakas, a senior here at U-32. 


As of Monday, January 29th, U-32 started the testing and removal process of Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs. 

The testing for PCBs is being conducted around the state. PCBs are chemicals used in many building materials until they were banned in the 1970s and can have many health effects over a long time.

U-32 tested for PCBs over the summer and found levels that exceeded the accepted number in certain spaces of the school. PCBs are measured in nanograms per cubic meter. The highest amount allowed in high schools is 100 ng/m^3, but some rooms like the auditorium, athletic training room, and Tech Ed workshop exceed this limit with numbers of 110, 120, and 110 ng/m^3 respectively. Other spaces like hallways and closets had numbers of 170 ng/m^3 or higher. 


The original test results


Now, Stone Environmental is trying to locate the PCBs. “We get assigned a school by the state and we go in and we look in every single room, and we take an inventory of things that could potentially contain PCBs as far as building materials go,” said Jennifer Cypher from Stone Environmental. 


A tile that was removed for PCB testing


The process of getting rid of PCBs is a lengthy one; sending bits of the building materials to the lab, identifying materials that contain PCBs, taking air samples, and finally, getting rid of the contaminated materials. This process may continue until the summertime.


A team from Stone Environmental working


During the February break, air sampling will take place. “That [will tell] how much is just circulating in the air that you and I are breathing every day,” said Jennifer. 

Some students at U-32 find the air quality testing concerning, especially given the lack of information. “I’m a little concerned…I don’t want to be breathing in something I’m not supposed to be breathing in,” said senior Olivia Serrano. 

“We don’t know the effects of it,” said freshman Chloe Pembroke, “so if it is bad, then we shouldn’t be breathing it in.”  

According to the non-profit group Clearwater, the long-term health effects of PCBs can include impairment of the immune system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and endocrine system, and may lead to cancer. More research is going into the neurodevelopmental effects it can have on developing brains in the womb. 

The structure of PCBs is what makes them harmful. Regarding reproductive health, the body cannot easily differentiate between PCBs and other hormones like estrogen. It binds to the same receptors that estrogen would and tricks your body into thinking that you have the hormone when you don’t, making your body unbalanced. 

However, this isn’t a cause for panic. “It’s not a major concern,” said Brad Parker, a chemistry and science teacher at U-32, “It’s not running out of here right now and never coming back.”

The PCB chemical only affects the health of someone who has been exposed for a long time, for instance, 20-30 years.  This means that teachers are most at risk of assuming these health consequences. “Especially anyone who has been here since before the renovations back in the early 2000s,” said Brad. Since PCBs were banned in the 1970s, any part of the building built during the renovations would be PCB-free. 

PCBs are man-made chemicals, which means that they are very hard to break down naturally. “Most of it is stuff that we have designed to hang around for a long time like a lot of plastics and things were designed [to be] durable,” said Brad. This means that once PCBs are located in the school, there is much more work to be done to get rid of them. 

According to a report presented to the Vermont House Committee on Education, thousands of buildings were built with PCBs in them across the country, and are only now being discovered and disposed of. “But as we’ve got a building of this size [that has] a lot of these materials that continue to seep into the atmosphere over time…that can continue to be bad,” said Brad. 

People are exposed to PCBs through the food we eat, especially fish, according to Clearwater.  It is the goal of U-32 that we limit the amount we are exposed to in this building. U-32 principal Steven Dellinger-Pate said, “We want to at least reduce the additional PCBs that we would have coming to us from our environment in the school since we are eating them as well….being able to reduce it in a school is just helpful to people long term.”

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