As federal regulation of hazardous building materials steadily increases, an old nemesis is creeping back into the spotlight and changing the way some Maine construction firms, architects, building owners and municipalities approach renovation plans.
A recent panel on Polychlorinated Biphenyl — or PCB — hosted by Augusta-based construction management firm TRC brought experts and regulators from Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency together with architects, banks, universities, government officials and waste management professionals to discuss the issue of PCBs, a "sleeping giant" of a topic poised to change the way construction projects are managed, according to TRC's Larry Fitzgerald.
Marketed as a wonder chemical when first introduced in the late 1950s, PCBs were widely used in electrical transformers, capacitors, caulking and light fixtures due to their stable, fire-resistant, non-corrosive properties. Commonly used in construction projects from 1955 to 1975, the concern over the potential toxicity and persistence of PCBs led Congress to ban domestic production of the compound in 1979.
While the potential health effects of PCBs are still being investigated, the compounds are widely believed to be endocrine disruptors, which interfere with human hormone production and can cause certain types of cancers as well as sexual, skeletal and mental development issues.
While still approved for "enclosed" uses, such as in capacitors, transformers and hydraulic fluids, PCB-laden construction materials have been off the market for decades, leading some to believe that the issue had come and gone. "PCBs were a big thing unfolding during the Superfund [era], then it just went away, so it really caught people off guard when it became an issue again," says David Sullivan of TRC.
The EPA started to look into a potential link between PCBs and indoor air quality in the early '90s and found the compound could "desorb" into surrounding materials, affecting air quality long after materials containing PCBs were removed.
This previously unrecognized property of the compound has had a dramatic effect the bottom line of some construction and renovation projects, as contractors and building owners are forced to budget for extensive PCB abatement and testing. "If you find you have PCBs in your caulking, it might not be the death knell in a project. You just need to do some research, collect data and see where you stand," says Sullivan.
Keith Sanborne, an engineer and project manager with Harriman Associates architecture firm in Portland, says the increased awareness of PCBs among building owners and facility managers has had a direct impact on one of his recent projects.
Contracted to renovate a building on a Maine college campus, Sanborne says plans for an additional exit were scrapped when the institution realized the work would require replacing all of the building's windows.
Given the age and type of caulking used in the windows, PCB abatement likely would have added significant costs.
"That's a several hundred-thousand-dollar issue at minimum and we didn't have the budget, so we didn't put the door in," says Sanborne, noting that the proposed door was more of a convenience item than a code issue. "Basically it changed the design that we wanted to implement because we knew [PCBs] were going to be an issue."
PCBs are most often found in older construction projects, especially schools and municipal buildings in urban areas. Concerns surrounding several Massachusetts school buildings and several big university projects led the EPA to start drastically adapting regulations in the early 2000s. TRC, which is headquartered in Lowell, Mass., has worked on PCB abatement projects in over 800 public schools in New York state, according to Fitzgerald.
Acceptable rates of PCBs are currently set at less than 50 parts per million, a figure many expect to drop within four to five years as the adverse effects of the compound are studied further.
In September 2009, the EPA announced new guidance for school administrators and building managers about managing PCBs in caulk and tools to help minimize possible exposure. Through EPA's regional PCB coordinators, the agency will also help communities identify potential problems and, if necessary, develop plans for PCB testing and removal.
Recent PCB abatement projects in Maine include Naples' Lakes Region High School, a factory in Washburn and the former Abbie Fowler Elementary School in Sangerville. Abatement costs for the projects ranged from $4,000 to $5,000 for the Washburn project to over $500,000 in the case of Lakes Region High School, according to Ron Dyer, director of the Maine DEP's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. Estimates for the unfinished Sangerville project range from $40,000 to $400,000, according to the Bangor Daily News. "This is an emerging issue as we refurbish older building stock in our area," says Dyer.
With stricter PCB regulation likely looming, Sanborne says that construction partners and building owners should start budgeting more for PCB abatement — a cost that could hinder the size and scope of some local construction projects.
"In this state in particular, budgets tend to be very tight — typically there is not as much money to play with when it comes to construction — and it takes a big chunk of money to deal with PCBs," Sanborne says.
Abatement costs range roughly from $12 to $15 per square foot. Some in the construction industry are trying to get ahead of the curve, tailoring their business models to address potential PCB concerns upfront.
Ross Hartman, field services director for environmental services firm Triumvirate Environmental in Eliot, says embracing a "educate, don't react" philosophy has helped their clients better budget for construction projects by being upfront about the potential cost of PCB abatement. "We saw people spending unnecessary money, but by getting ahead of it and having a plan in place, budgets can be managed," he says.