In what state health officials call the first cleanup of its kind in the state, a school district in Westchester County is planning to remove soil next to an elementary school in Yorktown Heights because the soil is contaminated by PCB's from caulking in the school's windows.
The cleanup at French Hill Elementary School, which will cost the district about $100,000, was prompted by a parent who had scraps of the caulking tested and found PCB's at 350 times above the federal limit. Soil around the school also showed evidence of PCB contamination, though at lower levels. PCB's, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which were banned in 1977, have been linked to developmental problems in children.
School officials have fenced off parts of the school outside near many of its windows and are seeking bids from contractors to clean up the contaminated soil. They hope the work can be completed by the time the children return in September.
A spokesman for the State Department of Health said the cleanup was the first the agency was aware of involving PCB contamination from caulk.
"We're kind of at the forefront here," said Dennis Verboys, director of facilities with the Yorktown Central School District. "Had we not had the overzealous community member, we never would have tested."
Dr. Daniel Lefkowitz, whose 7-year-old son attends the school, raised questions about possible contamination after reading a 2004 Harvard University study, which found that PCB's from caulk had contaminated schools and buildings in the Boston area. Knowing that the school's windows had been removed and replaced in 2003, and that the building was constructed when PCB's were used in caulk, Dr. Lefkowitz searched outside the building, found scraps of caulk left behind and had them tested.
Production of PCB's, which are flame-resistant, was banned in the United States in 1977, but they had been widely used in caulk and other building materials. Studies have shown that PCB's can cause developmental problems in infants and in children born to women exposed to the compounds during pregnancy. PCB's can also pose a risk of cancer, health experts say.
Westchester County Health Department officials say the contamination at the school does not present a health risk, but school officials say the contamination is sufficient under state and federal guidelines to require the cleanup. Dr. Lefkowitz, a podiatrist, is pressing for further testing at the school.
While there is growing concern among scientists about PCB's in caulk, many questions remain unanswered. For example, how commonly were PCB's used in caulk? Are PCB's migrating from the material and contaminating areas inside and outside buildings where they were used? If so, is the contamination at a level requiring removal? What are the health risks?
"This is something just coming on the radar screen," said Rich Cahill, a spokesman for the United States Environmental Protection Agency in the New York region. "There are efforts to quantify the risk associated with it, but at this point it's unknown."
Robert Herrick, who led the study by the Harvard School of Public Health, compared the issue to that of lead paint, which was used for many years, contaminating buildings and homes and causing health problems in children.
"PCB's are really potent developmental toxins," he said. "We want to minimize exposure for kids."
Of 24 buildings tested around Boston in the Harvard study, eight contained caulking material with PCB's exceeding 50 parts per million, the highest level allowable under federal guidelines. In addition, PCB levels in the indoor air and dust taken from the buildings revealed varied levels of contamination.
Dr. Herrick noted that in Finland, studies had found a correlation between PCB's in caulk and PCB's in the air as well as in the blood of construction workers handling the materials during renovations. In Germany, he said, a study found elevated blood levels of PCB's in teachers working in schools with contaminated caulking.
The study recommended random testing in schools, hospitals and other masonry buildings constructed or renovated during the time PCB's were used in caulk, commonly from 1960 to 1977. The caulk was typically used in brick buildings.
"The E.P.A. requires you to clean it up if you find it, but they don't require you to look for it," Dr. Herrick said. "We need to pull together data to determine if there is a health risk."
Little is being done at the state level to address the issue. The State Education Department has notified schools of the findings in Dr. Herrick's study through a newsletter. Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli, the chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Environmental Conservation, said he was considering sponsoring legislation that would finance a pilot program to test for contaminated caulk in schools and perhaps other buildings.
But environmental groups expect that advancing such legislation will be difficult. "What schools have a tendency to do is have a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach - they're afraid if you find something, then you'll have to do something about it," said Kathleen Curtis, executive director of the Citizens' Environmental Coalition, an Albany-based advocacy group. "School districts are tight on money. There's been a tremendous amount of difficulty getting a bill passed to test for lead in school water fountains."