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Reveal: The poison lurking in windows

Posted: June 14, 2016 at 3:16 pm by , in Breaking News, Featured, Reveal

Across the country, tens of thousands of public schools could be contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls – compounds more commonly known as PCBs, which were used widely in building materials such as window caulk. On this hour of Reveal, we take a closer look at this sleeper chemical that was banned in 1979 but still poses a serious health risk to kids today. – By Julia B. Chan, Reveal

No one knows how many schools have this ticking time bomb lurking in their windows, but reporter David DesRoches of WNPR in Connecticut starts us off with the story of a man who used to put PCBs in schools and now is working on getting them out. We’ve been referring to him as the “repentant caulker.”

Evidence that PCBs remain in the environment and can cause harmful health effects that range from skin conditions to cancer led Congress to ban it. So what’s the big catch? Schools aren’t required to test for it.

And why wouldn’t school officials want to test? Because it’s expensive – especially for public schools that face tight budgets. Looking for costly PCBs to remove of is hardly at the top of any principal’s to-do list.

PCBs have shown up in schools built before 1979, including in relatively affluent Malibu, California. Southern California Public Radio’s Stephanie O’Neill takes us to the front lines of the outrage – where parents who were worried that the school district wasn’t doing enough to protect kids and staff have taken the case to court. A teacher who calls herself “Cancer Patient No. 1” tells O’Neill her story.

So how did PCBs first find their way into the environment in the U.S.? DesRoches visits to a small town in Alabama called Anniston. In 1929, the Swann Chemical Co. started making PCBs in a small factory there. In 1935, Swann was bought out by another chemical company. You might know it: Monsanto.

Today, we know Monsanto Co. as a global agricultural giant. Besides being a producer of herbicides such as Roundup, it’s at the forefront of biotechnology. But half a century ago, PCBs were Monsanto’s golden ticket – the company was the sole manufacturer of the compound in the country.

Reveal is a weekly radio program produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. For more, check out our website and subscribe to our podcast.

Image:  Across the country, tens of thousands of public schools could be contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls – a compound more commonly known as PCBs, which were used widely in the caulking of windows. CREDIT: Anna Vignet for Reveal