PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) in building materials

Information about PCB-containing materials in the indoor environment of schools and other public buildings.

The purpose of this information booklet is to provide assistance to school and public building officials and the general public in assessing potential health concerns associated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds in building materials used in Massachusetts and elsewhere.  Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided broad guidance relative to the presence of PCBs in building materials, notably PCBs in caulking materials.  The most common building materials that may contain PCBs in facilities constructed or significantly renovated during the 1950s through the 1970s are fluorescent light ballasts, caulking, and mastic used in tile/carpet as well as other adhesives and paints.

This information booklet, developed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Climate and Environmental Health (DPH/BCEH), is designed to supplement guidance offered by EPA relative to potential health impacts and environmental testing.  It also addresses managing building materials, such as light ballasts and caulking, containing PCBs that are likely to be present in many schools and public buildings across the Commonwealth.  This is because the Northeastern part of the country, and notably Massachusetts, has a higher proportion of schools and public buildings built during the 1950s through 1970s than many other parts of the U.S. according to a 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report.  The Massachusetts School Building Authority noted in a 2006 report that 53 percent of over 1,800 Massachusetts school buildings surveyed were built during the 1950s through 1970s.  This information booklet contains important questions and answers relative to PCBs in the indoor environment and is based on the available scientific literature and DPH/BCEH’s experience evaluating the indoor environment of schools and public buildings for a range of variables, including for PCBs as well as environmental data reviewed from a variety of sources.


1. What are PCBs?

Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds are stable organic chemicals used in products from the 1930s through the late 1970s. Their popularity and wide-spread use were related to several factors, including desirable features such as non-flammability and electrical insulating properties. Although the original use of PCBs was exclusive to closed system electrical applications for transformers and capacitors (e.g., fluorescent light ballasts), their use in other applications, such as using PCB oils to control road dust or caulking in buildings, began in the 1950s.

2. When were PCBs banned from production?

Pursuant to the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 (effective in 1979), manufacturing, processing, and distribution of PCBs was banned. While the ban prevented production of PCB-containing products, it did not prohibit the use of products already manufactured that contained PCBs, such as building materials or electrical transformers.

3. Are PCBs still found in building materials today?

Yes. Products made with PCBs prior to the ban may still be present today in older buildings. In buildings constructed during the 1950s through 1970s, PCBs may be present in caulking, floor mastic, and in fluorescent light ballasts. Available data reviewed by DPH suggests that caulking manufactured in the 1950s through 1970s will likely contain some levels of PCBs. Without testing it is unclear whether caulking in a given building may exceed EPA’s definition of PCB bulk product waste of 50 parts per million (ppm) or greater. If it does, removal and disposal of the caulk is required in accordance with EPA’s TSCA regulations (40 CFR § 761).

4. Are health concerns associated with PCB exposure opportunities?

Although the epidemiological evidence is sometimes conflicting, most health agencies have concluded that PCBs may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen, i.e., to cause cancer.

PCBs can have a number of non-cancer effects, including those on the immune, reproductive, neurological and endocrine systems. Exposure to high levels of PCB can have effects on the liver, which may result in damage to the liver. Acne and rashes are symptoms typical in those that are exposed to high PCB levels for a short period of time (e.g., in industry / occupational settings). 

5. If PCBs are present in caulking material, does that mean exposure and health impacts are likely?

No. DPH/BCEH’s review of available data suggests that if caulking is intact, no appreciable exposures to PCBs are likely and hence health effects would not be expected. DPH has conducted indoor tests and reviewed available data generated through the efforts of many others in forming this opinion. 

6. How can I tell if caulking or light ballasts in my building may contain PCBs?

If the building was built sometime during the 1950s through 1970s, then it is likely that the caulking in the building and/or light ballasts may contain some level of PCBs. Light ballasts manufactured after 1980 have the words “No PCBs” printed on them. If the light ballast does not have this wording or was manufactured before 1980, it should be assumed that it contains PCBs.

7. What are light ballasts?

A light ballast is a piece of equipment that controls the starting and operating voltages of fluorescent lights. A small capacitor within older ballasts contains about one ounce of PCB oil. If light bulbs are not changed soon after they go out, the ballast will continue to heat up and eventually result in the release of low levels of PCBs into the indoor air.

8. Does the presence of properly functioning fluorescent light ballasts in a building present an environmental exposure concern?

No appreciable exposure to PCBs is expected if fluorescent light ballasts that contain PCBs are intact and not leaking or damaged (i.e., no visible staining of the light lenses), and do not have burned-out bulbs in them.

9.  Should I be concerned about health effects associated with exposure to PCBs as a result of PCB-containing light ballasts?

While DPH has found higher PCB levels in indoor air where light bulbs have burned-out, the levels are still relatively low and don’t present imminent health threats. A risk assessment conducted recently at one school did not suggest unusual cancer risks when considering a worst case exposure period of 35 years for teachers in that school. Having said this, DPH believes that facility operators and building occupants should take prompt action to replace bulbs and/or ballasts as indicated to reduce/eliminate any opportunities for exposure to PCBs associated with PCB-containing light ballasts.

10. When should PCB-containing light ballasts be replaced?

If ballasts appear to be in disrepair, they should be replaced immediately and disposed of in accordance with environmental regulatory guidelines and requirements. However, if light bulbs burn out, the best remedy is to change them as soon as possible. If light bulbs are not changed soon after they go out, the ballast will continue to heat up and eventually result in the release of low levels of PCBs into the indoor air. Thus, burned-out bulbs should be replaced promptly to reduce overheating and stress on the ballast.  As mentioned, ballasts that are leaking or in any state of disrepair should be replaced as soon as possible.

It should be noted that although older light ballasts may still be in use today, the manufacturers’ intended lifespan of these ballasts was 12 years. Thus, to the extent feasible or in connection with repair/renovation projects, the older light ballasts should be replaced consistent with the intended lifespan specified by the manufacturers.

11. Does DPH recommend testing of caulking in buildings built during the 1950s -1980?

Caulking that is intact should not be disturbed. If caulking is deteriorating or damaged, conducting air and surface wipe testing in close proximity to the deteriorating caulking will help to determine if indoor air levels of PCBs are a concern as well as determining the need for more aggressive cleaning. Results should be compared with similar testing done in an area without deteriorating caulking. In this way, a determination can be made regarding the relative contribution of caulking materials to PCBs in the general indoor environment.

12. What if we determine that caulking in our building is intact and not deteriorating?

Based on a review of available data collected by DPH and others, the DPH does not believe that intact caulking presents appreciable exposure opportunities and hence should not be disturbed for testing. As with any building, regular operations and maintenance should include a routine evaluation of the integrity of caulking material. If its condition deteriorates then the steps noted above should be followed. Consistent with EPA advice, if buildings may have materials that contain PCBs, facility operators should ensure thorough cleaning is routinely conducted.

13. Should building facilities managers include information about PCB-containing building materials in their Operations and Maintenance (O&M) plans?

Yes. All buildings should have an O&M plan that includes regular inspection and maintenance of PCB building materials, as well as thorough cleaning of surfaces not routinely used. Other measures to prevent potential exposure to PCBs include increasing ventilation, use of HEPA filter vacuums, and wet wiping. These O&M plans should be available to interested parties.

14. Are there other sources of PCBs in the environment?

Yes. The most common exposure source of PCBs is through consumption of foods, particularly contaminated fish. Because PCBs are persistent in the environment, most residents of the U.S. have some level of PCBs in their bodies.

Contact   for PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) in building materials

Help Us Improve Mass.gov  with your feedback

Please do not include personal or contact information.