Harvard University researchers studying older buildings in the Boston area say the rubbery caulking around windows could be a serious but unrecognized source of PCB contamination.
“It’s similar to lead paint in that it’s another case of material in construction that over time degrades,” said Robert Herrick, a lecturer at Harvard who led the study. “We are hoping this stimulates a national survey.”
The production of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, was banned in 1977. There is evidence they cause cancer in animals, and studies show they can harm humans’ immune and nervous systems, and may cause serious developmental problems in children.
Used primarily in electrical transformers, PCBs also appeared in construction material in industrial buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s. They rarely were used in caulking in single family homes.
With help from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers, the researchers looked at caulking in 24 buildings, and found that eight of them had enough PCBs to warrant specialized disposal under federal rules. Though they did not test the surrounding environment, other scientists have found links between contaminated caulk and PCBs in dust and soil.
Among the buildings tested were a museum, hospitals, government offices, subsidized housing, dorms and schools. The names of the buildings were not made public.
Herrick said the investigation by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that there are likely many other hospitals, schools, water treatment plants and other public buildings nationwide that may contain similar caulking material. He said workers demolishing or renovating older buildings may not be protected properly against the chemicals.
The research was published this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
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