Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Building Materials

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An Overview of PCBs in Building Materials and Exposure Risks

On this page, we’ll discuss the use of PCBs in Building Materials, where PCBs are found in older buildings, how PCB exposure occurs from contaminated building materials, litigation efforts for individuals exposed to PCBs, and much more.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Building Materials: A Public Health Concern

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have long been a subject of public health concern due to their adverse health effects on human health and the environment.

Hailed initially as miracle chemicals, PCBs found their way into various industrial and commercial applications, including electrical equipment and building materials.

Due to their persistent nature and toxic effects, the United States government eventually banned PCBs in 1979.

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Despite this ban, PCBs still pose a threat today, especially in older buildings that were constructed before the ban.

Building materials primarily installed between 1950 and 1978 that may contain PCBs include:

  • Caulking, Sealants, and Adhesives
  • Fluorescent Lighting Fixtures
  • Paints, Coatings, Varnishes, and Lacquers
  • Asphaltic Roofing and Tar Paper Materials
  • Ceiling Tiles and Acoustic Boards
  • Spray-On Fireproofing
  • Glazing Compounds in Windows

PCBs were also used as heat transfer fluids in electrical equipment, such as transformers, capacitors, voltage regulators, hydraulic oils, and more.

PCB exposure has been linked to a variety of health issues, including cancer, immune system disorders, nervous system problems, and endocrine effects.

Our law firm is currently investigating litigation for PCB exposures in school buildings constructed or renovated during the years that these hazardous chemicals were widely used.

If you have suffered health problems due to PCB exposure in school buildings, you may be eligible to file a claim.

Contact TorHoerman Law for a free case review.

You can also use the chatbot on this page to find out if you qualify for a claim instantly.

Table of Contents

What are Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of synthetic chemicals that were widely used in various industries and applications from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The production of PCBs started in 1929, and they became prevalent because of their chemical stability, flame and heat resistance, and excellent electrical insulating properties.

The widespread use of PCBs played a crucial role in American industry, particularly during World War II, as they significantly aided in the expansion of electrical capabilities and technological advancements.

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PCB uses included:

  • Electrical equipment (PCB transformers and capacitors)
  • Building materials (caulking, adhesives, coatings, sealants)
  • PCB oil and lubricants for motors and hydraulic systems
  • Carbonless copy paper
  • Fluorescent lighting ballasts
  • Plasticizers for plastic and rubber products
  • Dyes, inks, and pigments
  • Thermal insulation materials
  • Other commercial PCB mixtures

While PCBs initially revolutionized various industries, their environmental impact and human health effects eventually caused significant concerns.

Scientific experts found that these chemicals were persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and probable human carcinogens.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the half-life of PCBs in humans and the environment can range from months to decades since they accumulate in body fat and adipose tissues and do not quickly break down or metabolize.

To address the growing concerns about PCB exposures, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the suspension of PCB production in 1977.

The agency eventually banned their use in new products under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1979.

However, this ban did not apply to existing PCB-containing materials or equipment that was already in service.

As a result, PCBs can still be found today in older properties and other structures, including residential, commercial, industrial, and school buildings.

Examples and Applications of PCBs in Building Materials

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were integrated into various construction materials due to their ability to enhance flexibility, adhesion, and durability, qualities highly valued in construction.

In the manufacturing process, PCBs were often added as plasticizers in materials like caulks, sealants, and paints, thereby improving their physical properties and longevity.

Specifically, the incorporation of PCBs into these materials served to ensure better performance under thermal stress, vibration, or corrosive conditions.

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Building materials primarily installed between 1950 and 1978 that may contain PCBs include:

  • Caulking, Sealants, and Adhesives
  • Fluorescent Lighting Fixtures
  • Paints, Coatings, Varnishes, and Lacquers
  • Asphaltic Roofing and Tar Paper Materials
  • Ceiling Tiles and Acoustic Boards
  • Spray-On Fireproofing
  • Glazing Compounds in Windows

PCBs in Caulking, Sealants, and Adhesives

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were a key ingredient in caulking materials, sealants, and adhesives between the 1950s and 1970s, primarily to enhance durability and elasticity.

PCB-laden caulks and other similar materials were particularly common in buildings such as schools, public structures, and commercial facilities, where they were applied around windows, doors, and other joints to seal gaps effectively.

The concentration of PCBs in these caulks varied widely, with some samples containing levels as high as 50% of their total mass.

The presence of such high concentrations of PCBs in caulking poses significant health and environmental risks.

Over time, these caulks can deteriorate and release PCBs into the surrounding environment, contaminating indoor air, soils, and potentially stormwater systems.

Prolonged exposure to PCBs through inhalation or direct contact with contaminated materials raises serious health concerns, particularly for children in schools where these materials were extensively used.

Even today, buildings with original PCB-containing caulks continue to pose a risk, as complete removal and remediation of these materials can be complex and costly.

PCB-laden caulks and sealants, as they deteriorate, not only pose a direct risk but also have the capacity to contaminate adjacent materials like wood, concrete, and masonry, thereby extending the area of potential PCB exposure and complicating remediation efforts.

Given these ongoing risks, the management and remediation of PCB-laden caulks in older buildings remain a critical environmental health issue.

PCBs in Fluorescent Lighting Fixtures

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were extensively used in fluorescent lighting ballasts (FLBs) in buildings, particularly in schools and other structures built or renovated between about 1950 and 1979.

PCBs are typically found within the FLB capacitors and the interior potting material of older magnetic T12 lighting fixtures.

The capacitors in these FLBs, which regulate the flow of electricity to the lighting fixture, were filled with PCBs due to their ability to withstand high temperatures and electrical stresses.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Fluorescent Lighting Ballasts (FLBs) were a hidden hazard.

While they enhanced the functionality of the fixtures, they posed significant health risks due to their toxic nature.

Over time, as these FLBs aged and exceeded their designed lifespan, they became susceptible to leaking or rupturing.

Deterioration of old fluorescent lighting fixtures could lead to the release of PCBs into the surrounding environment, increasing exposure risks to building occupants.

Exposure to PCBs primarily occurs through inhalation of contaminated air or direct contact with the substances leaked from older fluorescent lighting fixtures.

In the event of a ballast failure, which could lead to smoking conditions or even fires, PCBs could be released in more concentrated forms, significantly elevating the exposure levels.

The EPA has recommended the removal of PCB-containing FLBs from schools and buildings.

Given the widespread use of PCB-containing FLBs in the past and their potential lingering presence in older buildings, a systematic approach to identifying, removing, and safely disposing of these components is crucial.

Other PCB-Containing Building Materials

Other than caulking and lighting fixtures, PCBs have also been used and found in a number of other building materials.

Other applications of PCBs in building materials include:

  • Paints, Coatings, Varnishes, and Lacquers: PCBs were added to enhance durability, flexibility, and water resistance.
  • Asphaltic Roofing and Tar Paper Materials: PCBs improved the weather resistance and longevity of these roofing materials.
  • Ceiling Tiles and Acoustic Boards: PCBs contributed to fire safety in ceiling materials and enhanced acoustic insulation.
  • Floor Finishes (such as resilient tiles, carpet adhesive, and mastic): PCBs were incorporated for their adhesive qualities and resistance to wear.
  • Pipe Insulation: The use of PCBs in pipe insulation was for their thermal stability and insulating properties.
  • Concrete or Masonry Sealers: PCBs were used to increase the water-repellent properties of sealers.
  • Sprayed-on Fireproofing: PCBs contributed to the fire-resistant properties of sprayed-on fireproofing materials.
  • Plastic Applications (Vinyl and PVC): PCBs improved flexibility and durability in various plastic products.
  • Non-conductors in Electrical Cables (Plastic and Rubber): PCBs increased the insulating properties of non-conductors.
  • Insulation Materials (Fiberglass, Foam, Felt, and Cork): PCBs improved thermal and acoustic insulating capabilities.

Routes of Exposure to PCB Materials in School Buildings

In school buildings containing PCB-laden materials, the primary routes of exposure are inhalation of contaminated air, ingestion of PCB-containing dust, and dermal contact with contaminated surfaces.

Chronic exposure to PCBs in school buildings and other older structures is a significant concern, particularly because these compounds can persist for extended periods and exposure can potentially result in ongoing and cumulative health risks.

The presence of PCBs in building materials, especially in school buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1980, poses a significant public health concern.

Researchers from Harvard University have estimated that between 12,960 to 25,920 schools in the United States may contain PCBs in building materials such as caulking, sealants, fluorescent lights, electrical devices, and other components.

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This widespread potential exposure is particularly troubling given the sensitivity of children and adolescents to PCB-related health risks.

In school environments, PCBs can be released into the air from aging materials and then inhaled by students and staff, or they can contaminate surfaces and dust, leading to ingestion or dermal absorption risks.

Given the long-term, chronic nature of these exposures and the potential for significant health impacts, there is an urgent need for comprehensive assessment, management, and remediation strategies in affected educational facilities.

Our law firm is currently investigating PCB exposures in school buildings and assessing potential litigation on behalf of those suffering from related health effects.

If you or a loved one have suffered from PCB exposure in school buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1979, you may be eligible to file a claim.

Contact TorHoerman Law for a free consultation.

Possible Health Effects of PCB Exposure

Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), through various routes can lead to a range of serious health concerns.

Whether through prolonged exposure in school buildings, eating PCB contaminated fish, living near hazardous waste sites, or through other routes, even minor exposures have been found to increase the risk of severe health problems.

PCBs present a significant health challenge due to their tendency to accumulate in the human body over time.

This accumulation can lead to a broad spectrum of health implications, affecting multiple bodily systems.

Chronic exposure to PCBs, especially in environments like schools and workplaces, raises concerns about their long-term impact on general health and well-being.

The widespread use of PCBs in various materials has created environments where routine exposure is often unnoticed, yet potentially harmful.

PCBs Linked to an Increased Risk of Cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning they can cause cancer in humans.

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Studies have shown an association between PCB exposure and several types of cancers, including:

  • Liver Cancer
  • Thyroid Cancer
  • Stomach Cancer
  • Intestinal Cancer
  • Breast Cancer
  • Brain Cancer
  • Malignant Melanoma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

The risk of cancer is exacerbated by the fact that PCBs accumulate in the body over time, leading to higher concentrations that can trigger malignant transformations in cells.

This heightened cancer risk associated with PCB exposure underscores the importance of mitigating exposure, especially in environments where PCBs are prevalent, such as older buildings and industrial sites

PCBs and the Endocrine System

PCBs can disrupt the endocrine system, which plays a critical role in regulating various bodily functions.

Imbalanced thyroid hormones can have a wide range of health effects, including impacts on metabolism, growth, and development.

PCBs can interfere with the production and regulation of thyroid hormones, leading to complications such as:

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
  • Thyroid cancer

Immune System Effects of PCB Exposure

PCBs can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and other health issues.

Exposure to PCBs creates a higher likelihood of developing immune system disorders, such as autoimmune diseases and allergies.

Exposed workers, students, and occupants in older buildings may be at a higher risk of developing these health complications.

Neurological Problems and PCBs

PCB exposure can impact the nervous system, leading to a range of neurological problems and issues in neurological development.

Neurological issues linked to PCB exposure include:

  • Impaired learning and memory
  • Behavioral changes
  • Confusion
  • Brain fog
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Poor hand-eye coordination

Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) has been closely studied for its detrimental impact on neurological development, particularly in children.

The developing brains of children are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of PCBs, which can lead to long-term cognitive and behavioral issues.

Studies indicate that such exposure can lead to decreased attention span, memory problems, and lowered IQ in affected children.

There is also evidence linking PCB exposure to deficits in attention, learning, and impulse control, all critical aspects of a child’s educational and social development.

Behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity and poor social interaction, have been observed in children with higher levels of PCB exposure.

Reproductive Issues Related to PCB Exposure

The impact of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) on reproductive health is a significant concern.

PCB exposure has been linked to a range of reproductive issues, including disruptions in menstrual cycles and fertility problems in women.

In men, elevated levels of PCBs have been associated with reduced sperm quality and lower sperm counts, potentially leading to decreased fertility.

Pregnant women exposed to PCBs face an increased risk of adverse outcomes, including miscarriages and preterm births.

During pregnancy, PCBs can cross the placental barrier, potentially impacting the development of the fetus and leading to long-term health issues in the offspring.

Developmental Effects of PCB Exposures

The developmental impacts of PCB exposure, particularly in school environments, present significant concerns due to the sensitivity of developing children to these toxic compounds.

Prenatal exposure to PCBs, often through maternal transmission via breast milk or the placenta, has been linked to neurological and cognitive deficits in infants and young children.

Additionally, perinatal exposure to PCBs is associated with delayed developmental milestones, behavioral problems, and altered immune responses.

In school settings, chronic exposure to low-level PCBs can exacerbate these developmental issues, potentially leading to long-term educational and health challenges.

Other Possible Health Effects of PCB Exposure

Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) can have a wide array of additional health effects, impacting individuals in various ways depending on the mode of exposure and length of time exposed.

Other possible health effects of PCB exposure include:

  • Skin and Eye Irritations: Direct contact with PCBs can cause skin conditions such as chloracne, a severe acne-like disorder, and rashes. Eye irritation and possible damage can also occur with direct exposure.
  • Respiratory Problems: Inhalation of PCBs, particularly in indoor environments like schools, can lead to respiratory issues such as bronchitis and, potentially, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Cardiovascular Effects: Long-term exposure to PCBs has been associated with an increased risk of hypertension and heart diseases. This is particularly concerning in school environments where prolonged exposure can occur unknowingly.
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders: Ingestion or exposure to contaminated food or air can lead to gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and liver damage.
  • Musculoskeletal Issues: PCB exposure has been linked to joint and muscle pains, potentially exacerbating conditions like arthritis, especially in staff and students in older school buildings.
  • Metabolic Disturbances: PCBs can interfere with metabolism, contributing to issues like obesity or diabetes, which are of particular concern for long-term exposure in young individuals in educational settings.
  • Hearing Loss: Some studies suggest a correlation between PCB exposure and hearing impairment, which could affect learning and communication in a school environment.

Mitigation and Remediation of PCB Contamination

Given the dangers associated with PCBs, it’s essential to identify, manage, and remove PCB-containing materials from older buildings.

Several regulatory guidelines and best practices govern these processes, and they often involve professionals trained in handling hazardous materials.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides regulations and guidance on the management of PCBs, especially in the context of older buildings.

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Some key steps in the mitigation and remediation of PCB-containing materials include:

  • Identification: This step involves conducting comprehensive inspections and testing to identify any PCB-containing materials in the building, including caulk, sealants, paint, insulation, and lighting fixtures
  • Assessment: Experts must evaluate the extent of contamination and potential risks to occupants’ health. This stage may involve taking samples, analyzing the results, and creating a report.
  • Isolation: If PCBs are present in the building, administrators must take appropriate steps to isolate and secure the contaminated areas to prevent further exposure.
  • Remediation: Depending on the extent of contamination, remediation methods can include encapsulation or removal of PCB-containing materials. These processes must follow EPA guidelines and involve trained professionals.
  • Disposal: Proper disposal of PCB-containing materials is crucial to prevent further contamination and potential health risks. The EPA has stringent regulations for the handling, storage, transportation, removal, and disposal of PCBs.
  • Testing: Regular testing of indoor air, dust, and surfaces is vital to ensure that PCB levels remain within safe limits.
  • Preventative Measures: To prevent future exposure to PCBs, it’s essential to implement measures such as regular inspections and maintenance of building materials, proper disposal of hazardous waste, and following EPA guidelines for handling PCB-containing materials.

TorHoerman Law: Investigating PCB Lawsuits

TorHoerman Law is actively investigating lawsuits for individuals exposed to PCBs in the St. Louis area.

Many schools in the region, along with older buildings, may have contained old fluorescent lighting fixtures and construction materials manufactured with PCBs.

The investigation aims to hold responsible parties accountable for the harm PCB exposure has caused.

These lawsuits seek to provide compensation to affected individuals and raise awareness about the risks associated with PCBs in building materials.

If you or a loved one have been exposed to PCBs and have experienced health issues as a result, it’s crucial to seek legal advice from experienced attorneys.

Contact TorHoerman Law today for a free, no-obligation consultation.

You can also use the chatbot on this page to find out if you qualify for a PBC lawsuit claim instantly.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are PCBs, and why were they used in building materials?

    Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are artificial chemicals known for their chemical stability, flame resistance, and electrical insulating properties.

    These qualities made them favored choices in construction materials, including caulks, sealants, and adhesives, as they enhanced the longevity and safety of these materials.

  • What are the health risks associated with PCB exposure?

    PCB exposures can lead to a range of adverse health effects, including liver cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental issues, and impacts on the nervous and immune systems.

    Prenatal PCB exposure can also result in decreased birth weight and long-term health consequences.

  • How can PCB exposure in older buildings be mitigated and remediated?

    Mitigation and remediation of PCB-containing materials involve identification, isolation, removal, disposal, testing, and preventive measures.

    These processes should be carried out in compliance with EPA regulatory guidelines and often require professional expertise.

  • How can I determine if I have been exposed to PCBs in an older building?

    If you suspect PCB exposure in an older building, consult with professionals who can conduct inspections and testing to identify PCB-containing materials.

    This measure will help assess the potential risks and determine if any mitigation or remediation is necessary.

    Additionally, seek medical attention if you experience PCB exposure symptoms.

  • Are There Different Types of PCBs?

    Yes, there are different types of PCBs.

    PCB congeners refer to individual chemical variants within the larger family of polychlorinated biphenyls.

    Each PCB congener is unique, defined by the number and position of chlorine atoms on the biphenyl structure. In total, there are 209 recognized PCB congeners.

    Commercial PCB mixtures, such as those historically used in various applications, typically consist of multiple congeners combined to create a specific PCB mixture with desired properties.

    These mixtures, often known by their trade names, vary in their composition and concentration of different congeners.

    Furthermore, PCBs can metabolize in the environment and within organisms, forming hydroxylated PCB metabolites.

    These metabolites retain many of the toxic properties of the original PCB congeners and can also pose health risks.

    The understanding of these various types of PCBs, including their congeners, commercial mixtures, and metabolites, is crucial for assessing and managing the risks associated with PCB exposure.

Written By:
Tor Hoerman

Tor Hoerman

Owner & Attorney - TorHoerman Law

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