The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that schools take steps to reduce potential exposures to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from older fluorescent lighting fixtures.
The agency’s recommendation is based on evidence that the older ballasts contain PCBs that can leak when the ballasts fail. Elevated levels of PCBs in the air of schools should not represent an immediate threat, the EPA says, but could pose health concerns if they persist over time.
PCBs were widely used in construction materials and electrical products prior to 1978. 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 time.
Until the late 1970s, PCBs commonly were used as insulators in electrical equipment. The EPA banned PCBs in 1979 because of their toxic effects, but uses of older PCB-containing ballasts were allowed to continue, provided that the ballasts had not failed and the PCBs were not leaking.
The agency believes many schools built before 1979 have light ballasts containing PCBs. A recent pilot study of three schools in New York City found that many light ballasts in the schools contained PCBs and had failed, causing the PCBs to leak.