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EPA warns of PCB-laden school lights

Recommendation goes out to schools to pre-emptively remove all fluorescent lighting made before 1979 as it likely contains PCBs now being released into air as they break down from age.

What a typical intact fluorescent light ballast made before 1979 looks like, according to the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued an official guidance document yesterday recommending that all U.S. schools remove fluorescent lighting made before 1979 from their buildings.

It's been determined that florescent light fixtures made before 1979 contain polychlorinated biphenyl insulation in their ballasts, and that as the insulation breaks down, it releases PCBs into the air of a building.

Until the late 1970s polychlorinated biphenyls were among the chemicals frequently used in electronics and construction materials. PCBs are now known to be cancer-causing as well as irritating to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in humans who are exposed to it over a period of time. Because of the danger, the EPA banned the use of PCBs in 1978.

But old technology containing PCBs is still hanging around, literally, in the form of light fixtures.

"The EPA believes many schools built in the U.S. before 1979 have light ballasts containing PCBs. A recent pilot study of three schools in New York City found that many light ballasts in the schools contained PCBs and had also failed, causing the PCBs to leak and contributing to increased levels in the air that school children breathe," the EPA said in a statement.

An old ballast after it sparked and started a fire at a school in California in 1999. EPA

The EPA directive recognizes that schools may not have the money in their budgets to make the change.

It advises schools to look into federal and state funding programs for removing PCBs, as well as federal, state, Energy Star, and public utility programs that promote installing more energy-efficient lighting, as a way to defray the replacement costs for the old fluorescent fixtures. Schools might also qualify for funds in the Department of Energy's Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).

The environmental agency also offered instructions on how to properly dispose of technology containing PCBs.

Keep in mind that the pre-emptive guidance is only a recommendation, and not a mandate. If a lighting fixture, however, is found to be broken and leaking PCBs, schools are already required by federal law to immediately remove and properly dispose of the fixture, as well as anything that was contaminated as a result of the leak, according to the EPA.