PCBs in Building Materials

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) have historically been associated with use in dielectric fluids for transformers, light ballasts and other electrical devices. The use and disposal of this equipment has been strictly regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), found in the federal code at 40 CFR 761.50. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of PCBs in 1977 due to their ability to bio-accumulate in many species. The EPA considers high levels of PCBs to be “probable human carcinogens” and their use is reported to have adverse effects on the immune, reproductive and nervous systems. Today, the cleanup and disposal of PCB waste is regulated under the EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

PCBs have been identified in many lesser known uses – such as window caulk, masonry joint caulk, concrete expansion joints, grout and mastic. In many of these applications, Aroclor 1254 (the plasticizer of choice) was added at the job site to make the original product more pliable, durable and water-resistant. PCBs were used in concentrations ranging from 1% to 20% in these products and were widely used in buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1978.

PCBs have been found not only in buildings but in applications ranging from airport runways to concrete water pipes and tanks. In addition, they are known to leach into porous materials such as concrete and masonry – causing these materials to become contaminated and treated as PCB remediation waste as well.

PCB Regulation…or Lack Thereof

Under TSCA, PCBs in products other than transformer oils are classified as “non-authorized” uses when the concentration exceeds 50 parts per million (ppm). In accordance with TSCA, these non-oil products must be removed and properly disposed. The removal must be performed in accordance with a risk-based disposal approval process – requiring a comprehensive program including Certified Industrial Hygienists, risk assessors and engineers.

The steps include a comprehensive building characterization and sampling plan, sample collection and     interpretation, sample documentation, risk assessment, abatement strategy development, and plan approval by EPA. Since the concentration of PCBs may vary widely even within the same building, extensive testing must be conducted to document the presence of PCBs throughout the building and the samples sent to accredited laboratories for analysis in accordance with a strict testing protocol.

Currently, there are no specific exemptions to regulations addressing PCBs for a building in use. Although the regulation requires removal, there is no duty to test to determine the presence or concentration of PCBs…no duty to report the findings to EPA…and no explicit duty to remove PCBs from a building that remains in use.

However, there are both civil and criminal penalties for misuse of PCBs. Civil penalties may range up to $32,500 per violation per day; and criminal penalties for willful and knowing violation can be as high as $25,000 per day and/or one year in prison. There is very limited enforcement of the regulation in many regions of the United States.

PCB Removal

The actual remediation process should be performed by experienced contractors. For removal of PCBs found on the exterior of a building, large tent-like enclosures, not unlike those used for asbestos abatement, are constructed around scaffolding. The enclosures are maintained under a pressure differential using HEPA-filtered devices. EPA recognizes a variety of removal techniques.

As the project progresses, additional testing of building materials must be performed to document that the PCBs have been removed to an acceptable level. For example, a limit of one ppm is permitted in construction materials that are PCB-contaminated; so it may be necessary to remove several rows of brick around a window to achieve this limit. Soils may need to be excavated and tested to get to a level of 20 ppm. And disposal of PCB-contaminated waste is strictly regulated – with very few landfills licensed to handle it. Needless to say, PCB remediation is an expensive, time-sensitive process that must be planned well in advance of building demolition or renovation. The process nearly always takes longer and costs considerably more than originally anticipated.

HETI…Helping to Deal with PCB Issues

Whether EPA continues to enforce this regulation remains to be seen. There have been efforts to re-visit the rule to consider limiting its application. Most recently, in 2010, EPA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning the reassessment of the use authorizations for PCBs. Despite holding a series of public meetings and collecting comments, EPA has not issued any proposed changes.

Nevertheless, the issues of PCBs will need to be addressed. Hydro-Environmental Technologies, Inc. (HETI) can assist building owners and managers, along with their insurance and legal advisors, manage the risk. Whether it’s PCBs, asbestos, lead-based paint, underground storage tanks, or another environmental issue associated with building management, renovation or demolition, HETI can help our clients assess and address those needs.