UI research team includes Jason Hua, a PhD student, Rachel Marek, a research scientist, and Keri Hornbuckle, director of the Iowa Superfund Research Program
Sunday, September 17, 2023

Hornbuckle PCBs
Marek, Hua, Hornbuckle

University of Iowa researchers studying toxic air chemicals have identified building materials used in a Vermont school could pose health risks to the school’s students and staff. 

The research team found that the largest source of PCB emissions in this school was glass block windows. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are highly carcinogenic chemical compounds that can cause cancer, damage the brain and nervous system, and interfere with how the body’s hormones work. They still exist in some older building materials. 

The group based at Iowa's IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering, a research center at the College of Engineering, published their findings this month in Environmental Science & Technology

“This study is the first to report measurements of PCB emissions from building materials in a school,” stated the paper’s first author, Jason Hua, a civil and environmental engineering PhD student at Iowa. 

“We used a new research approach of combined air and emission measurements to find the sources of airborne PCBs in schools,” said Rachel Marek, a research scientist at Iowa and co-author on the study. “The results give a clearer picture of how to prioritize building materials for removal because we directly measured which materials were emitting the largest amounts of PCBs to the air.” 

PCBs were manufactured in the United States by Monsanto in chemical mixtures called Aroclors. Before they were banned in 1979, Aroclors were added to a wide variety of commercial products, including building materials. Approximately 55,000 schools around the United States were constructed during peak Aroclor production and many older schools were remodeled during that time, but it is unknown how many of those schools contain PCBs. 

“I want school districts across the country to look into emissions of PCBs from building materials in their older schools. Measurements are necessary,” said senior author Keri Hornbuckle, director of the Iowa Superfund Research Program and a civil and environmental engineering professor. “With measurements, the problem can be addressed directly through targeted remediation.” 

The Iowa study is part of a collaboration with school and state officials and was funded by the Vermont Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health, and the National Institute of Health. 

“It’s not clear why PCBs were added to construction materials or how much was used in each school. And because school and Monsanto records are unclear about Aroclor use, we have to take measurements in each school built or remodeled before Aroclors were banned from sale,” Hornbuckle said. 

Hornbuckle PCBs

PUF-PES is polyurethane foam passive emission sampler, invented by University of Iowa researchers. The Hornbuckle research group is the first to directly measure emissions of PCBs within a school. 

Hornbuckle PCBs

PUF-PAS is polyurethane foam passive air sampler. 

The complete research paper is published at Environmental Science & Technology.

A direct link can be found here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.3c05195

Media requests can be sent to media-request@uiowa.edu or keri-hornbuckle@uiowa.edu.