PCBs at Green Mountain High School – What you need to know

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2023  Telegraph Publishing LLC

After high levels of Polychlorinated Biphenyls — PCBs — found in the Burlington High School led to moving that school’s students to an empty department store while a new school is being built, the Vermont legislature mandated testing every publicly funded school built before 1980.

A panel of experts representing several state agencies explained the PCB problem and took questions from community members. <small> Meeting images courtesy of Okemo Valley TV

A panel of experts representing several state agencies explained the PCB problem and took questions from community members. Meeting images courtesy of Okemo Valley TV

Through that testing, the Green Mountain Unified School District recently learned that samples of the air taken in its high school — Green Mountain Union, which opened in 1971 — also show elevated levels of PCBs. And while those levels are not nearly as high as those  found in Burlington, they do require action to remove the materials that are emitting them.

Recently a group that included the Vermont state toxicologist, representatives of the departments of Health and Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Education briefed members of the GM community on the problem and the process to fix it.

What are PCBs and why must they be removed?

According to the presentation by Patricia Coppolino of Environmental Conservation,  PCBs are man-made chemicals used in building materials and in electrical equipment like transformers. PCBs don’t break down quickly like some chemicals and they can accumulate in the body. Their use has been linked to both cancer (breast, liver and melanoma) and non-cancer health problems in the nervous, immune, reproductive and endocrine systems. PCBs were outlawed in the United States in 1979.

But schools that were built when PCBs were legal and their use widespread — like GM — may still have building materials that are emitting the chemicals in varying concentrations, which are stated in “nanograms per cubic meter” of air. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram and this is stated as ng/m³.

A sampling device for detecting PCBs

Responding to a question about raising the PCB concentration level that calls for action to remediate, State Toxicologist Sarah Owen explained that before the state had a standard for looking at school exposure to PCBs it had “screening level” of  15 ng/m³ while the Environmental Protection Agency uses 5 ng/m³. Parts of the Burlington High building were at 6,000 ng/m³. She noted that for preliminary testing, the screening level is still at 15.

There were also questions about the difference between the levels that the EPA and the State of Vermont say should trigger “action” and “immediate action” to remediate PCBs. For example Vermont’s immediate action level is 300 ng/m³ while the EPA uses 700 ng/m³ for a student and 300ng/m³ for a teacher. Owen explained that the difference in the two is that Vermont considers the “reasonable maximum exposure” time a child or teacher might spend in the building as 9.5 hours per day, while the EPA calculates it at 6 hours.

Note that these figures are for those ages 7th grade through adult. Levels for younger children are lower and, so far, all Two Rivers Supervisory Union elementary schools except Chester-Andover have been tested and found clear of high PCB levels. CAES is supposed to be tested by December, but the testing schedule has been falling behind. While the original statute said all testing should be done by 2024, the DEC website shows a schedule that stretches into the middle of 2025.

What is the process to remove the PCBs and what will this mean for school in the fall?

So, in testing for the state, Harper Environmental of Hartland found that the Green Mountain High building has areas with levels as low as 4 ng/m³ and as high as 600. These levels were found with a sampling device that uses a pump to pull air through a glass tube filled with a polyurethane filter that collects the PCBs, according to the state’s presentation. The average concentration for the first floor was 148 ng/m³ while the second floor average was 143 and the third floor average (where that 600 level was found) was 323 ng/m³.

Harper did not test every room but created maps of areas grouped together based on their uses and the types of materials that could contain PCBs in those areas and placed samplers in 30 percent of those areas and extrapolated that similar nearby areas would have the same results.

A sampling map created by Harper Environmental shows the positions of samplers and the areas by groups

A sampling map created by Harper Environmental shows the positions of samplers and the areas by groups

The next step is for the school to hire an environmental consultant from a list of those recommended by the state to come up with a work plan that can be reviewed and and approved by the DEC.  GM hired Harper Environmental to create that plan to locate the sources of the PCBs.

At the same time, the University of Iowa’s Superfund Research Program – which specializes in identifying the sources of airborne PCBs – began sampling 44 places in the school on Wednesday June 21. When it is finished, its samples will be sent to a lab which may take as little as two weeks and as long as six to come back with results that pinpoint areas that need to be remediated.

As with turning around the lab results, each step requires its own time and other actions must wait for results. And subsequent plans will depend on these times.

While that is going on, the school has received the go-ahead from the state to purchase air purifiers with activated charcoal filters with the state paying for the units. The PCBs have an “affinity” for the charcoal and stick to it thus reducing the concentration in the air. “That’s not remediation, that just makes it safer for the use of the spaces,” said Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Lauren Fierman. “Doing that makes it possible that we might be able to use some of the rooms we’re currently not planning on using at all.” Fierman also said she didn’t want people to think they had this all worked out, because they are just at the beginning of getting the plan going.

Patricia Coppolino of the Department of Environmental Conservation, left, and State Toxicologist Sarah Owen answer questions at GM on June 7, 2023

Patricia Coppolino of the Department of Environmental Conservation, left, and State Toxicologist Sarah Owen answer questions at GM on June 7, 2023

“We’ll put together a couple of plans for the fall. One will involve not using any of the rooms that were above the action level and another that may use those if we have levels from retesting that show they are reusable.” said Fierman

Once the filters have run for several days, the air is sampled again to see if the filters have reduced the PCB concentrations. “The state says they have had a lot of success with these,” said Fierman.

At a recent school board meeting Parah said that the use of temporary walls could stretch classroom space, but he did not feel they needed to look into temporary classrooms.

“Once we identify the sources [of the PCBs] we can begin to put a remediation plan in place,” said Fierman. Parah stressed patience in his remarks to the school board. “This will dominate our conversation for the foreseeable future” said Parah.

“We are following the plans that we received from the state and whatever they tell us is an acceptable way to have people in the building safely, that’s what we will do,” said Fierman. And whether all of the timeframes for testing and getting results work out or not, the schools will be prepared for those outcomes.

“We are confident at this point that we will be able to run a school for all of our students in our building in the fall,” said Fierman.

What does this mean for those who have attended school – or pre-school – or worked in the building?

Responding to a question about the effects of PCBs on students who have gone to GM, Owen said that the health risk  for students is relatively small, but there is a greater hazard for those who have spent decades in the building. She noted that it is not possible to say what individual outcomes a few people will have, and that they should consult with their healthcare providers regarding the risks.

What will this cost?

Since the scope of the project is unknown, so is the cost. There was $29.5 million dollars for identifying sources, mitigation and remediation of PCBs in the appropriation bill that came out of the most recent legislative session and was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott. Since then, the legislature has met to override that veto and so the Agency of Education will be tasked with portioning out those funds.

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  1. Jack Carroll says:

    Great article Shawn. Very informative for all.
    I spent 22 years in the building, appears to be much to do to make the building safe for all.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Sweet Jeebus. here we go, AGAIN.
    dollar to a donut that a NEW school is gonna be FORCED upon the taxpayers…..