Carcinogens on the Playground?

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The PCB scare has hit the news yet again. A Westchester County school district is about to spend $100,000 to remove soil next to an elementary school, because the soil contains PCBs from window caulking. PCBs, used for their insulating and fire-resistant properties, were banned in 1977, when high-dose animal tests revealed an association with cancers and developmental problems. However, there is no evidence that tiny exposures from environmental contamination cause any health effects in humans. Indeed, studies in the most highly exposed groups -- workers who handled PCBs for decades -- showed no evidence of increased rates of cancer or developmental issues.

The cleanup plan is fueled by a number of alarmist claims. Dr. Daniel Lefkowitz, a father at the elementary school, requested testing of the caulking after reading a Harvard study that linked PCBs to health problems and compared PCBs to lead paint, which has in fact been shown to be a toxin at levels encountered in the environment -- unlike PCBs. While PCBs have had adverse health effects on laboratory animals, these occur only after long-term exposure at extremely high doses, which is in no way comparable to human environmental exposure. There has been no consistent, convincing evidence of health risk at levels such as those found in this caulking, according to the Westchester County Health Department.

EPA regulations are based on animal test findings, and use of such tests to predict adverse effects on humans, including cancer, is not scientifically valid. One cannot reliably predict human health effects based on rodent tests, as even mouse tests cannot predict results in rats. When natural substances found in everyday foods, such as broccoli and grapes, are tested using the same animal tests, they are found to cause as much disease in rodents as synthetic chemicals, which would mean that under a consistent regulatory scheme even "all-natural" foods served in the school cafeteria should come under attack.

Education and public health officials should also be concerned when one person's fears are taken seriously enough to result in wasting large sums of money on soil removal. Ironically, Dr. Lefkowitz has been lauded by school district personnel for placing them at the "forefront" of this issue, but since this scare has been refuted numerous times, why be proud of such an "accomplishment?"

It seems even more ironic, then, that a school district that has declared itself short on money is able to spend $100,000 on this cleanup effort. Surely, this money would be better spent on more urgent public health concerns, such as AIDS education, vaccine information, and even drivers' education, as these do involve real heath risks. Even testing for lead, a valid concern, has been put on the back burner. This school is teaching the wrong health priorities.

Sara Cuccio is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.