FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Osborn Hill Elementary School principal of just over a month, Frank Arnone, and other town and state officials tried to calm parents’ fears on Wednesday about news that the school building has high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a possible cancer-causing chemical.
Fairfield Public Schools planned to replace most of the windows at Osborn Hill this summer. But preconstruction tests found potentially unsafe levels of PCBs. The chemicals, which have been banned from products in the U.S. since the 1970s, turned up in unusually high levels in the caulk lining of some classroom windows, and especially in a fire-proofing spray on the gymnasium rafters.
Though some areas of the school posted PCB levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommendations for schools, Fairfield Health Director Sands Cleary assured parents that kids and teachers were not likely at risk for health problems.
“In relation to the levels that we’re seeing at the school, there have been no studies that show any kind health effects at the levels that we’re dealing with,” Cleary said.
Connecticut Department of Public Health toxicologist Brian Toal said that health problems at Osborn Hill were “extremely unlikely.” He explained that the EPA’s guidelines are set 300 times below the lowest proven problem-causing amounts. Osborn Hill’s contamination falls well below that threshold. And though PCBs are carcinogens, Toal put the odds of a student getting cancer from exposure at Osborn Hill at “eight in a million.”
Since the worst contamination is in the gymnasium, that area has been sealed off from the rest of the school. Arnone and Superintendent David Title hope to have the rest of the school cleaned by the school’s opening on Aug. 30. If PCB levels in the classrooms are not low enough by then, Osborn Hill’s students will start the school year at two former Catholic school buildings.
Kindergarten through third grades would go to the former Holy Family School, which was closed two years ago by the Diocese of Bridgeport because of low enrollment. Fourth and fifth-grade students would go to the former St. Emery’s School, which normally houses Fairfield’s Alternative High School. Arnone said the decision would be announced no later than Aug. 24.
As for other schools constructed during the same era, Title said the district is still gathering information to see if those buildings need to be tested as well. Kimberly Tisa, the PCB Coordinator for the EPA, said the agency does not require or recommend testing in other schools in this situation.
“Just because you have something that was constructed or renovated during that time does not automatically say they have PCBs,” Tisa said.
All testing results and fact sheets on PCBs are available on the Fairfield Public Schools website for concerned parents to read. Title said the district will continue to update the information as his staff receives it.