From the Superintendent's Desk

Mark Tucker, M.A. - Caledonia Central Supervisory Union

PCB Testing at Cabot School

August 23, 2022

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manmade chemicals. Until they were banned in 1979, they were commonly used in building materials such as window caulking and in paint. Practically speaking, any structure built before 1979, including homes, probably has some PCBs in its building material, and thus may have airborne PCBs leaching from this building material into the air. Nonetheless, following the closure of Burlington High School in September 2020 due to the presence of airborne PCBs, the Legislature decided in the 2021 session to require PCB testing at all public schools in Vermont. School testing was started in late spring 2022, with schools generally prioritized based on the age of their buildings. Cabot School was one of the first schools tested.

Last Friday, we received a verbal preliminary report from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Department of Health (VDH) that their testing had flagged levels of airborne PCBs in two areas of the school – the art room and the gymnasium – that we have to address.

VDH guidelines use a scaled matrix based on student grade level to determine the action levels and the need for remediation. The two numbers that matter are 1) School Action Level (SAL), which means the level of airborne PCBs is low but requires remediation, and 2) the Immediate Action Level (IAL) which means that the level of airborne PCBs is high enough to restrict use of the space. While we won’t have the specific numbers for these two spaces until we receive the final written report, promised for next week, we do know that the risk in the art room is low enough that it requires no immediate action. However, the IAL in the gymnasium requires us to restrict its use by students in grades PK-6 until the source and cause is remediated.

Immediate Impact

Out of an abundance of caution, the gymnasium is closed for use by all students until we can identify and remediate the specific source of the airborne PCBs. Likely sources are wall and/or ceiling surfaces, even where these surfaces have been painted over, and window caulking. Pinpointing the specific source depends on another round of testing by consultants hired by DEC, which we are hoping will be done very soon. Once the source is identified, we will conduct remediation steps. If it is window caulking, we will remove and replace window caulking. If it is the paint, we will repaint the gymnasium with an epoxy-type paint that seals in the existing paint.

We were surprised to learn yesterday that the State doesn’t actually have plans in place for testing and remediation beyond the airborne testing that has been done so far. This has to be a priority for the State, because while Cabot was one of the first schools tested, there is every reason to believe that many schools in Vermont will face this issue as the airborne testing is still ramping up. We will update you as this unfolds over the next few days and weeks.

Is the School Safe?

The school is safe and we are reopening on schedule tomorrow. We hesitate to say, “It could have been worse,” but it could have been worse. None of the primary instructional areas in the main and satellite buildings were flagged and they are absolutely safe and open. The art room is not an immediate issue because it is not used for instruction of Pre-K students. We have already shifted plans for PE classes, which will be held outside (weather permitting) or in other spaces. And despite the fact that the cafeteria is attached to the gymnasium, there is no reported airborne quality issue in the kitchen and dining area.

What Happens Next?

We don’t have a firm timeline yet, but here are the next steps as we understand them:

  1. Source testing by DEC in the gymnasium and art room – this will identify the area(s) that need to be addressed to stop the leaching of airborne PCBs.

  2. Completion of remediation based on the source testing

  3. Retesting of air quality to confirm elimination of the airborne PCBs. (This last is a commonsense assumption on our part.)

  4. Reopening of the gymnasium to student use

Other Air Quality Initiatives

We have a project proposal awaiting funding by Efficiency Vermont and AOE to update and/or repair all of the airflow management systems on the campus. Airflow improvement is the one best intervention that positively addresses the issue of airborne PCBs; another way to think about this is that schools with up to date air handling systems can still have PCBs present in the structure but not have an airborne PCB issue because the air handling system resolves it.

Mark Tucker, Superintendent

Rebecca Tatistcheff, Cabot Principal