At Tuesday night's Board of Selectman's meeting, parents of Estabrook Elementary School students expressed concern over results from a second round of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) sampling done at the school Tuesday that revealed still higher-than-recommended levels of the chemical in the air.
"Is it safe for me to send my girls to school there tomorrow?" asked one father.
After last fall's announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that building materials – including caulking – used in buildings built prior to 1978 could contain PCBs, and that high levels of PCB exposure over a long period of time may be harmful to health, town officials hired a consultant to test municipal buildings.
In May, testing done on caulk samples in exterior windows determined that three of the town's 22 buildings had PCB samples exceeding 50 parts per million – the Town Office Building, Clarke Middle School and Estabrook, according to the town's Health Division.
Preliminary air testing then showed the three buildings had levels below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's standards, however detection limits on PCB levels (measured in nanograms per cubic meter, or ng/m3) were not sensitive enough for school indoor air levels, meaning higher-level testing was needed.
That testing, done Aug. 9, revealed that the Town Office Building and Clarke had PCB levels below the recommended level, while Estabrook's air samples exceeded the EPA advised maximum concentrations.
The EPA has a guidance threshold of 300 ng/m3 for children in grades one to five, and 100 ng/m3 for kindergarteners. Aug. 9 test numbers show air samples taken throughout the school range from 284 to 1,800 ng/m3.
The findings led town officials to seek approval from the EPA for expedited removal of the caulk around exterior windows at Estabrook. The work necessitated an emergency meeting of the Appropriations Committee, which on Aug. 23 approved a $150,000 appropriation toward the project, and an additional $42,000 was allocated from the facilities budget, according to town officials.
Work started at the school on Tuesday, Aug. 24, with the goal of washing the inside of exterior windows, fully encapsulating interior window caulk with tape and covering it with new caulk by the start of school.
After the work was completed, air samples taken at Estabrook yesterday – Aug. 31 – showed the air still contained higher levels of PCBs. Samples taken in various parts of the school ranged from 418 to 774 ng/m3.
"Our goal is to get (the numbers) below the minimum threshold," Pat Goddard, director of public facilities, said last night. "The plan put in place hasn't achieved that yet."
Goddard said he understood parents' anxiety, and wished he could be more reassuring. While the taping and recaulking of the windows largely removes the risk of children coming in contact with concentrations of PCBs through touch, parents said they remain concerned about PCBs in the air.
Parents asked why the work was not done in June, instead of waiting until August. They also questioned why further work to flush air systems in the school – scheduled for this weekend – wasn't being done before students went back to school this week.
"I assure you if we could have done it in June, we would have," Goddard said. "It took a succession of steps to get the conclusive results."
Goddard also said that no remediation was done at Clarke this summer, as thought by some people. The levels at the middle school, as at the Town Office Building, did not require remediation, he said, and work done at Clarke this summer was for a different project.
While the discussion was brought up last night by Board of Selectman Chairman Hank Manz, who said he felt the issue should be addressed by the board, a parent meeting is being held tonight at Cary Hall with school officials and members of the School Committee to address the topic.
The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
More information on PCBs in schools can be found on the EPA's website.