Polychlorinated Biphenyls: A New Hazard for Historic Buildings

Historic Preservation Thesis

Emily Sinitski

Richard Pieper, advisor

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are hazardous organic compounds best known for their use in transformers and electrical capacitors because of their non-combustibility and flexibility. Lesser known, but widespread, use in caulking, finishes and paint is now coming to light because of health risks, particularly associated with their prevalence in schools. Humans can be exposed to PCBs in a number of ways: through deteriorating caulk that makes its way to the soil by rain run-off, by breathing contaminated air, or by dermal contact with the material. Abating materials with high concentrations of PCBs is required by law. This thesis gave a brief introduction of the history of PCBs in building construction from about 1950 to 1980 before production, sale and disposal was regulated through the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). The TSCA was one of a group of acts passed in the 1970’s to improve the quality of the environment including the Clean Air Act, Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.  Although proper removal of PCBs from building materials will decrease the amount in the environment, this may have implications for historic buildings. Because PCBs often migrate into porous adjacent substrate, original materials may have to be abated as well.