PCB removal from light fixtures not such a bright idea

After months-long pressure on the city to replace light fixtures containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in schools, the Environmental Protection Agency finally got its way yesterday when the Bloomberg administration said it would allocate $708 million for the effort over the next decade. Fluorescent light fixtures in 772 New York City Schools — almost two-thirds of the city’s school buildings — will either be replaced completely or get new ballasts because they contain PCBs. An article in The New York Times labels the chemical as a carcinogen that impairs the immune system and reproductive function and lowers I.Q.

This prompted ACSH staffer Susan Ingber to ask: “If parents and officials are so worried about the presence of PCBs in light fixtures lowering I.Q., what about all the money that will be removed from the school budget to replace these lights — won’t that have a much greater adverse effect on kids’ intelligence?”

PCB contamination does not pose an imminent health threat, and contrary to what everyone says, the chemical isn’t actually a human carcinogen, ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross notes, but he says that he doesn’t blame parents for being worried. “Parents’ fear is not based on science, as the ban was based on rodent experiments, as usual. Even in a study analyzing the health effects of PCBs in the most highly exposed workers, there was no evidence of an increase in the incidence of cancer. Therefore, all of the energy and resources invested in removing PCBs in light fixtures for the so-called benefit of public health will amount to zero.”

“This is another example of fear trumping science,” observes ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.