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NC State may test for toxic PCBs on building projects, chancellor says. What to expect

News & Observer - 4/4/2024

It’s been nearly five months since NC State University closed Poe Hall after tests showed the presence of toxic chemicals. Further tests in the campus building, as well as a federal health evaluation, remain ongoing — but as those processes unfold, the university could adopt new protocols for how, and when, it tests other buildings for similar chemicals in the future.

Chancellor Randy Woodson told The News & Observer in a sit-down interview that he has instructed university officials to review new federal guidelines regarding PCBs — or polychlorinated biphenyls, the man-made chemicals detected in Poe Hall — and consider how the university might add PCB testing to the other tests the university performs when beginning a construction or renovation project.

The university already tests for a variety of contaminants, such as asbestos and lead, before beginning work in a building, Woodson said. Now, the chancellor is asking the university’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) department to “develop protocols for going forward, how we will assess the built environment ... when we’re going into a building to do work.”

“We’re working right now on developing protocols for PCB testing going forward,” Woodson said.

New guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, which became effective Feb. 26, “are expected to result in quicker, more efficient, and less costly cleanups, due to greater flexibility in the cleanup and disposal of PCB waste, while still being equally protective of human health and the environment,” according to a description in the Federal Register.

In a 30-minute interview with The N&O last week, Woodson addressed the university’s pending guidelines — noting that it was too early to say exactly what they might entail — the potential fate of Poe Hall and how the university has handled the issues to this point, among several other topics related to the building.

How the issues at Poe Hall began

Woodson said the initial complaints raised about possible contaminants in Poe Hall stemmed from a renovation project in part of the building that houses the main distribution frame that provides internet connectivity to the northern part of the university campus. The university was installing additional HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning — to cool the room that houses the distribution equipment, Woodson said.

Building occupants’ “initial questions” about the construction project, raised in August, were related to the dust and debris being generated from the renovation and whether the university had tested the building for contaminants such as asbestos and heavy metals, Woodson said.

A complaint form given to the North Carolina Department of Labor by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was then forwarded to NC State in late September, stated that employees had “not been informed of the presence, location and quantity of asbestos-containing materials, despite ongoing renovations and asbestos abatement being conducted,” and that “there are concerns that employees may be exposed to lead-based paint and possibly PCBs, based on the age of the building, and ongoing renovations being conducted.”

Samples collected from Poe Hall in early October showed results “within acceptable limits” for asbestos and other heavy metals, but “subsequent concerns” were raised about the building’s HVAC system, specifically, and dust coming from it, which prompted testing for PCBs, Woodson said.

When additional samples from the building showed the presence of PCBs in November — and when Woodson “found out about it for the first time” — university leaders “made a really difficult decision ... out of an abundance of caution for the people working in the building, to close the building so that we could do a full environmental assessment of the building.”

The building has remained closed since that time, and leaders now expect the building to be closed through at least the end of the calendar year.

Further testing, possibility of new protocols

Regulations regarding testing for PCBs vary compared to regulations for asbestos and other contaminants.

Prior to beginning a construction project that may disturb asbestos, for example, North Carolina regulations require that buildings be “thoroughly inspected by a North Carolina accredited asbestos inspector,” who helps determine which state or federal regulations are applicable to the project.

There are no regulations requiring buildings to be tested for PCBs at regular intervals, though the EPA “recommends that property owners or operators planning demolition or renovation of a building or structure determine if manufactured PCB products are present and, if so, properly remove and dispose of them during these activities,” according to a fact sheet published in 2021.

NC State “for several years” has tested the exterior of buildings for PCBs if there is concern that caulking around windows contains the chemicals, Woodson said.

Test results released by the university last month show that exterior caulking at Poe Hall and D.H. Hill Library tested positive for PCBs in 2018.

“We have protocols for that, because anytime we’re replacing a window or re-caulking a window, we always test for PCBs, because that will tell us how to handle the material and how it needs to be disposed,” Woodson said. “But that’s exterior to the building. That’s not the interior built environment.”

The EPA’s new guidelines on PCBs are mostly related to clean-up and mitigation strategies if the chemicals are detected; they do not implement requirements for testing for the chemicals.

Still, Woodson tied the new guidance to an opportunity for the university to consider how it might develop protocols for interior PCB testing to use in the future. Woodson said he didn’t want to “over-promise” on what the protocols might entail, but said they would be informed by the testing performed at Poe Hall.

Woodson said the new guidelines could be ready as soon as late April, when further testing in Poe Hall — as conducted by the private consulting firm the university has hired — is also expected to be completed.

The protocols will be used to determine when, or if, the university tests other campus buildings for PCBs, Woodson said. There are dozens of buildings built in the timeframe in which PCBs were produced in the U.S., from 1929 to 1979. The university keeps a “very detailed inventory of our buildings” and knows which ones may contain PCBs, as well as ones where PCBs have previously been addressed during renovations, Woodson said.

In Poe Hall, the HVAC duct work, where high concentrations of PCBs were found, had not been replaced since the building was completed in 1971, Woodson said. The duct work is built into the concrete of the building, instead of being run through a ceiling or a more accessible place, which made any renovations to the system challenging, he said.

Woodson anticipated the protocols NC State develops and the process it follows with Poe Hall “will be relevant to every state agency, every other university in the [UNC] System and universities and government agencies all over the country.”

Health evaluation ongoing

While the university’s consultant, Geosyntec, conducts further environmental testing in Poe Hall and the Environmental Health and Safety department works on developing future testing guidelines, a separate health hazard evaluation of the building, conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to determine whether hazardous materials in Poe Hall contributed to health risks for building occupants, remains ongoing.

The evaluation is the second one that has been opened for Poe Hall. NIOSH, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, closed an initial evaluation despite health concerns and news reports citing cancer cases among former and current employees at Poe Hall. NC State had asked NIOSH to pause its evaluation while the university was conducting further tests in the building, but NIOSH elected to end it.

Asked about the status of the evaluation Wednesday, CDC spokesperson Lisa George told The N&O that “NIOSH does not provide details about ongoing evaluations.”

Woodson told The N&O that conversations between the university and NIOSH and the CDC “have been very positive” and that NC State “is providing “all of the information that they’re asking for.”

PCBs, depending on the quantity present and the length of exposure, can affect the immune, nervous and reproductive systems, among other health effects. They are also linked to cancer and considered to be “probable human carcinogens,” according to the EPA.

The university is not currently providing health testing for students, faculty or staff who worked or attended classes in Poe Hall.

Woodson said the university would consider offering tests if a state or federal agency asked NC State to do so, but said that has not happened yet. George did not answer questions from The N&O about whether NIOSH or the CDC had suggested the university provide tests or at what point providing tests would be appropriate.

“The point right now, for us, is that we’re going to give the experts, the evaluative process with NIOSH, all the room that they need to do their job. If that is something that is recommended in the future, yeah, we would certainly look at it at that point,” Woodson said.

Woodson said he understands the concerns former building occupants have about their health, but said the university needs to gather more information about the building.

“I understand that people are afraid and, you know, a diagnosis of a health condition — particularly something as serious as cancer — is a very, very devastating thing. And I really understand that and feel that for our employees and others that have been associated with the university,” Woodson said. “But my responsibility is to make sure that we get all the information that’s necessary for the full health evaluation and for mitigation strategies going forward and evaluation strategies for other built environments on our campus.”

Potential fate of Poe Hall

Once further testing in Poe Hall is complete, the university will work with Geosyntec to consider the appropriate next steps for the building and the contaminants inside.

Woodson and other university leaders may have to weigh the expenses of mitigating the contaminants compared to tearing down the building and beginning with new construction.

Initial test results for some building materials showed the presence of PCBs at levels several times higher than the threshold — 50 parts per million (ppm) — at which federal regulations require PCB materials to be removed from buildings. For example, duct insulation in room 520E was found to have Aroclor 1262 in it at a level of 940 ppm, almost 19 times higher than the threshold for removal.

Asked whether the university would remove those materials, as regulations require, Woodson said the university “will do everything we’re asked to do by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Keri Hornbuckle, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Engineering who researches PCBs in school environments, previously told The N&O that removing and remedying PCBs can be “very expensive.”

“Weighing that expense versus the expense of all new construction is something that we have to do every day,” Woodson said. “But I can tell you, there’s not a big pile of cash over in the corner. Yeah, for either of those scenarios. So whatever we find, we’ll have to work with the state on, you know, how we’re going to deal with it.”

NC State Vice Chancellor Julie Smith told university trustees in February that there “is understandably a lot of interest” from state legislators about Poe Hall.

The short legislative session begins April 24. Woodson said it was too early to predict how the state might assist the university’s efforts, but said legislators “know that we’re incurring expenses now,” including for testing and for leasing office space on Centennial Campus for College of Education faculty and staff who were displaced from the building.

Woodson said demolishing the building would be difficult since Poe Hall “is so critical to the university,” but noted he was “hesitant to get ahead of the data” that will influence the decision.

More information about Poe Hall

NC State is maintaining a website dedicated to Poe Hall, including communications about the issue from university leaders, at

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