PCBs will be removed from complex by fall, UMass Amherst says

By Sydney Lupkin
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2010

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The University of Massachusetts Amherst has less than two months to remove toxic PCBs from one of its residence complexes, but officials said they are confident the work will be complete before students return.

They don’t have a choice.

“There are not 5,000 hotel rooms in Amherst that we can put people in,’’ said Edward Blaguszewski, UMass Amherst spokesman. “If we need people to work extra hours, we will.’’

The Southwest Residential Area, where the polychlorinated biphenyls are located, houses 5,500 students in five high-rises and 11 low-rises during the academic year, which begins Sept. 7. It was erected in 1966, when PCBs were an ordinary part of the construction process because they were not flammable, had high boiling points, and were chemically stable, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

PCBs were banned in 1979 but remain in some old buildings.

Now considered an environmental and health foe, PCBs are believed to harm the immune and reproductive systems, among others. Studies have linked them to cancer, according to the EPA.

People who have been in the area in the past 40-odd years can rest easy, however, according to Kim Tisa, the EPA’s PCB coordinator for the region.

“I don’t see that there’s an imminent threat or imminent risk to people who have walked past,’’ Tisa said.

Tisa said humans can come into contact with PCBs in three ways: touch, hand-to-mouth, or inhalation. Because PCBs were mostly in the caulking of the concourse of the UMass complex, not the rooms, the likelihood of PCBs making their way into students’ systems is slim, she said.

Tisa said PCBs are not volatile like gas, but they do tend to “migrate’’ to items surrounding them such as the concrete and granite touching the caulking.

Blaguszewski said soil has been tested and contaminated granite will be removed and cleaned off-site.

Tisa said the EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection are working with UMass Amherst to expedite the process in time for the fall semester.

The state’s flagship university discovered the PCBs in May during the final phase of its renovations. Since then, the school has submitted plans to state and federal environmental departments and hired environmental firms to get rid of the toxin.

UMass is no stranger to PCB removal. Over the past five years, PCBs have been discovered and removed in the Du Bois Library and the Lederle Graduate Research Tower, according to the school’s Environmental and Health Safety website.

The Department of Environmental Protection has cited the college for improper handling of asbestos but not for PCB problems.

“It is a manageable issue,’’ Blaguszewski said of the PCB removal. “We just have to work hard to make sure we manage it the right way.’’

Sydney Lupkin can be reached at

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