After the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were detected in a window-caulking sample of Fogarty Hall on March 18, air sample and surface tests conducted show very low levels of the compound throughout the building, according to University of Rhode Island officials.
“These are highly favorable results for the indoor environment of Fogarty Hall and mean that individuals in the building are not being exposed to levels of PCBs that federal agencies would consider harmful,” said Matt A. Fragala, senior scientist and project manager at Environmental and Health Engineering, in a statement released by the university Friday afternoon. “In fact, in most cases, our tests could not even detect the presence of PCBs at all,” Fragala said.
PCBs, banned in the U.S. in 1979, were a man-made chemical compound frequently used in window and outdoor caulking and electrical equipment. By the 1980s many countries banned PCBs for environmental and health concerns.
“PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system,” says the Environmental Protection Agency on their official website.
Fogarty Hall, built in 1964, is home to the Crime Laboratory and some pharmacy faculty, but no classes have been held there recently. The 14 faculty and the construction crews were all informed of the testing and chose to stay in the building throughout.
The building is currently undergoing a partial renovation where, once it is complete, the nutrition and food science department will be hosting labs and classes. When prepping for window replacements, the university tested for PCBs in the window caulking as a precaution. This is suggested by the EPA for buildings built or renovated before 1979.
“We followed the process that the EPA recommends, and they say it’s not reason for alarm, but you should inform yourself,” said Vice President of Business Services Vernon Wyman. “The folks on Capital Projects and those working on the project certainly did the right thing in requesting the tests.”
After finding traces of PCBs in the caulking, URI contracted with Environmental Health and Engineering (EH&E) for further testing of surfaces, air quality and bulk samples. EH&E, based out of Needham, Mass., is the same company that oversaw the PCB testing and remediation in Chafee Hall about 15 years ago, a project Wyman also headed.
In 2000, there was serious concern about Chafee Hall when several faculty and staff reported health problems and cancers, primarily breast cancer, that they said correlated with the time frame they had been working in the building. After testing for mainly pesticides and other chemicals, high levels of PCBs were found in the building and it was closed for eight months for remediation.
In 2002, 79 people who had worked in Chafee had blood serum tests completed to check for elevated PCB levels in their bodies. None came back higher than average, so there was no conclusive evidence that the building had played a part in the abnormally high rate of cancers.
“Unless you were in the industry and had high levels of exposure, to point to one specific building…there is not a lot of confirming information to draw these links one to one,” said Wyman.
The only other building tested for PCBs on campus other than Fogarty and Chafee was Ballentine, despite many of the buildings on campus being built before 1979 when PCBs were finally banned. Testing on Ballentine was conducted prior to its renovation in 2003.
Wyman did confirm that all of the fluorescent lights on campus were replaced at one point, as they potentially contained oil with PCBs in them.
The Roger Williams Complex was completed in 1966, just two years after Fogarty was built. These are residential buildings for sophomores and upperclassmen that have not been renovated, besides bathrooms, since they were built. All of the rooms have been in their original state since 1966 and have not been tested.
“We are following the EPA guidelines,” said Wyman. He said there are not specific regulations on testing buildings as a precaution, even when they are buildings people live in. Testing is not suggested unless there is a renovation taking place.