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EPA Recommends Schools Replace PCB-Containing Fluorescent Fixtures

By Elizabeth K. Miles

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently set its sights on older fluorescent lighting fixtures as part of its effort to address exposure to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in schools. If a school was built before 1979 or has not had a complete lighting retrofit since 1979, the EPA recommends replacing all PCB-containing fluorescent light ballasts. When a ballast breaks, PCBs leak and contribute to increased levels of the chemical in the air students breath.

PCBs are toxic chemicals that can affect the immune system, nervous system and endocrine system, and they are potentially cancer causing. PCBs were widely used in electrical products until the late 1970s. The EPA banned the production of PCBs in 1977, but allowed the use of existing light ballasts as long as the ballasts had not failed and were not leaking PCBs. The EPA now recommends replacement of any fluorescent light ballast that contains PCBs, even if still intact.

Schools should first survey all fluorescent light ballasts to ensure that none have failed or are leaking PCBs. If a ballast is leaking PCBs, federal law requires its immediate removal and disposal and the disposal of any PCB-contaminated material at an EPA-approved facility.

Intact ballasts do not pose a threat of PCB exposure, but all ballasts will eventually fail. For this reason, the EPA recommends that schools remove all PCB-containing ballasts. Ballasts made between 1979 and 1998 that do not contain PCBs should be labeled “No PCBs.” If a ballast does not have this label, school officials should assume it contains PCBs or contact the manufacturer to determine if it does. The person surveying the ballasts should wear protective clothing, including chemically resistant rubber gloves, boots and disposable overalls. Replacement of leaking ballasts should be performed in a well-ventilated area or while wearing ventilation or respiratory protection to protect from harmful fumes.

Although replacing existing ballasts requires an upfront investment, federal, state and private programs exist that can help a school update its lighting. The Department of Energy maintains a database of programs at Additionally, replacing old fluorescent lighting with high efficiency lighting will result in energy savings.

Contact William J. Mulligan at (414) 225-1429, Elizabeth K. Miles at (414) 225-1491 or your Davis & Kuelthau attorney with any questions regarding the EPA’s recent guidance on PCBs in fluorescent light fixtures.