Effectively Identifying and Remediating PCBs in Building Materials


Asbestos continues to be public-enemy #1 when it comes to building material contaminants that property owners want to quickly identify and be thoroughly rid of when it comes to their properties and the air quality within it. That’s perfectly natural given the health risks associated with breathing in asbestos fibres, but there’s another potentially airborne contaminant that was incorporated into building materials in far previous decades that needs some attention paid to it as well.

PCBs, or Polychlorinated Biphenyls, were found in building materials used between roughly 1950 and 1979 in North America, both in Canada and the USA. As is the case with asbestos, one of the more common locations for them was in schools and other public-utility buildings and offices.

Potential PCB Trouble Spots

Here at Urban Environmental, we are equally experienced and adept with testing for and remediating PCBs in building materials. Let’s take a look at where they are most commonly found:

  • Caulk put in place between 1950 and 1979 may contain as much as 40 percent PCBs and can emit PCBs into the surrounding air. PCBs from caulk may also contaminate adjacent materials such as masonry or wood.
  • Fluorescent lighting fixtures that still contain their original PCB-containing light ballasts and have exceeded their designated lifespan have an increased chance of rupture and emitting PCB. Sudden rupture of PCB-containing light ballasts may result in exposure to the occupants and may also result in the addition of significant clean-up costs
  • Some building materials – paint and masonry walls most notably – and indoor dust can absorb PCB emissions and then become potential secondary carry sources for PCBs. When the primary PCB-emitting sources are removed, the secondary sources often emit PCBs.

When it comes to removing contaminated caulk, it is preferable to use and electrical joint cutter with oscillating blade rather than any manual implement. A big reason for this is that the oscillating blade creates a low volume of dust and there is typically a low risk of damage to joint faces when the work is conducted by a skilled and experienced tradesperson.

A rotary cutting tool can be used too, and some remediation technicians will use dry ice blasting, which is also very effective but expensive and comes with complex requirements for protective measures.

Like any remediation process when contaminants that pose health risks may be present, it must be undertaken by industry professionals. Property owners can be proactive in identify the possibility of it though, and in particular by identify products by their manufacture date or classification. With fluorescent lighting, look for the following indicators:

  • A black, tar-like substance inside the small capacitor within the FLB or in the potting material. If an FLB fails or over heats, the capacitor may break open resulting in release of its oils and potting materials
  • A yellow, oily liquid or in the tar-like potting material that leaks from the FLB

The capacitor does not always leak when the FLB fails, and a leaking capacitor does always cause FLB failure. A leaking or rupturing FLB may increase PCB levels in the air, therefore, measures should be taken to limit or avoid personal exposure.

Airborne contamination stemming from degrading paint and masonry walls is measured by a Toxic Organic Compounds in Ambient Air test, with one of 2 tests determined by a high or low air volume. This approach is usually paired with wipe sampling testing from the suspected source material(s), and between them we are extremely reliable at identifying and then removing all PCBs via the offending building materials.

Urban Environmental is Greater Vancouver’s premiere home and commercial property remediation service provider, and we’re proud of our nearing 2 decades of meeting and exceeding customer expectations and maintaining an ‘A’ rating with the Better Business Bureau. If you have any reason to suspect airborne contaminants in your home or business property, please call or email us without delay.

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