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Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are present is a variety of building materials and may present a significant impact to construction projects. The presence of PCBs in caulking, sealants, paints, adhesives and other building materials dates from the 1930s to the banning of PCBs in domestically manufactured products in 1979. In that time period, however, PCBs were added to hundreds of building products due to their chemical stability, nonflammability, insulating properties and high flash point.

Accounting for the presence of potentially hazardous and/or highly regulated materials on construction projects is by no means new to the construction industry. The use of proper inspection processes, project planning and the anticipated use of specially trained, qualified hazardous materials contractors are also not new to the construction process. However, the presence of PCBs in building materials, such as window and joint caulking, industrial paints, waterproofing mastics and other similar materials, is not uniformly addressed by the construction industry. In recent years, this issue has gained significant attention on projects, although federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) regulations banning the use of PCBs are not new to the construction industry. These TSCA regulations give EPA authority to enforce cleanup and disposal requirements of building products that contain and "unlawful use" of PCBs.

The presence of PCBs in caulking and other building materials is a public health concern in public buildings, such as schools and municipal buildings. As such, EPA has published several guidance documents addressing general information, regulatory guidance, guidance for school officials and guidance to the construction industry.

Construction projects are most impacted because renovation and demolition processes result in disturbing and eventually disposing of these building materials that may contain PCBs. As such, TSCA regulations place specific requirements on the proper handling, removal, transport and disposal of building materials that contain PCBs above regulated levels. These requirements significantly affect the cost and schedule of impacted construction projects, especially if not anticipated.


According to EPA, PCBs may be present in the following building materials:

  • transformers and capacitors;
  • other electrical equipment, including voltage regulators, switches, reclosers, bushings and electromagnets;
  • oil used in motors and hydraulic systems;
  • old electrical devices or appliances containing PCB capacitors;
  • Fluorescent light ballasts;
  • cable insulation;
  • thermal inculation material, including fiberglass, felt, foam and cork;
  • adhesives and tapes;
  • oil-based paint;
  • caulking;
  • plastics;
  • carbonless copy paper
  • floor finish.

The stability of PCB mixtures manufactured caused them to be added to these building products. Elastomeric properties exhibited by caulking with PCBs, for example, made it a desirable product for use in buildings as a weather sealant along building joints and windows and doors. Other properties that enhanced products' PCBs were added to include low flammability, plasticizer qualities, fire resistance and high insulating properties. For this reason, PCBs were added to dielectric fluids and were commonly found in electrical products, transformers, light bulbs and ballasts.

Although production of PCBs in the U.S. ceased by the late 1970s, PCBs continue to pose a risk to the environment due to their persistent nature and to their ability to bioaccumulate. PCBs do not break down quickly in the environment, and prior to banning PCBs, their release was discovered early in the manufacturing processes and disposal of PCB-containing fluids and waste. The potential human health risk from environmental contamination is based on the concern that PCBs can bioaccumulate in plants, food products, animals and fish and could be ingested by humans. Health risk concerns range from the carcinogenic potential of PCBs in animals to noncancer health effects on the body's internal systems.

PCBs are a manmade organic chemical termed "chlorinated hydrocarbons" and were manufactured for use in numerous applications from 1929 to the late 1970s until they were banned by EPA. One of the most common trade names of a PCB mixture was Aroclors. Other familiar terms for PCBs include more than 30 trade names, including the more common:

  • chlorodiphenyl;
  • 1,1'biphenyl cholro;
  • 42% Cl (Aroclor 1242); and
  • 54% Cl (Aroclor 1254).


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Keith Pokorny, LEED AP, Vice President of Environmental Services, has more than 25 years of experience in Environmental, Engineering, and Construction Management services. He specializes in large project coordination and assists clients in implementing construction-related capital improvement programs.

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