Home Inspection – Is Something in the Air?

“Something in the air” takes on a whole new meaning today than that magic spring night in the 60’s or the Tom Petty song. Mold, fungi, radon, Chinese drywall and now PCBs.

Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB’s have been around since the 1940’s. They where manmade chemicals that was widely used in construction materials and electrical products. They were banned by Congress in 1976 because of a “concern” about their health and environmental effects.

The use and disposal of PCBs before the phase-out resulted in their widespread presence in our soil, air, water and food. Despite the federal ban, they remain present today in caulking and sealants used in the construction or renovation of older buildings before 1978.

So why did the EPA announce guidance about this cancer causing chemical in September of 09?

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency “announced a series of steps that building owners and public school administrators should take to reduce exposure to PCBs that may be found in caulk in many buildings constructed or renovated between 1950 and 1978.

“Call our the instigator… Because there’s something in the air. ” – Tom Petty.

The press release acknowledged the growing amounts of evidence of levels of PCBs in caulk used in older buildings with discussion as to the health concerns related to this “banned” cancer causing chemical.

But, the press release seemed to be carefully crafted such that it did not use the words “must” or “shall” in their discussion for actions and related testing.

Is this a serious issue?

Also the “EPA recommends testing peeling, brittle, cracking or deteriorating caulk for the presence of PCBs and removing the caulk if the PCBs are present at significant levels…”

In referring to high air test levels, the EPA also stated that “building owners should be “especially vigilant” in implementing and monitoring ventilation and hygienic practices to minimize exposures… “

How are people exposed to PCBs?

Though PCBs were banned from production in 1978, they still typically exist in low-levels in our environment. They are in the food we eat, the air we breathe and in dirt and dust outside. They build up in our bodies over many years.

This long-term build-up of PCBs is what potentially causes harm. The levels of PCBs in our environment and in the bodies of people in this country have decreased significantly over time.

So why all the fuss now?

Food is a main source of exposure to PCBs. Fish (especially fish caught in polluted waters) contains small amounts of PCBs, as do meat and dairy products.

Indoor air and dust may also be a significant source of PCB exposure from PCB-contaminated caulk, electrical products, other building materials or products that contain PCBs.

What about caulk in single-family houses or other places?

EPA has found PCBs in large scale apartment complexes and public buildings. To date, EPA has not found PCBs in caulk in single-family houses. They do note that generally air concentrations are below the public health exposure levels developed by EPA.

So where does this leave you?

Unless you sleep with old caulk gun, lick your window sills or snort contaminated dust, PCBs should not be a great concern. On the other hand if you work or live in a room where window caulk is peeling and falling on the floor, call an inspector for testing and recommendations before you “break out” into a song!