Toxins Found in Peabody Terrace

Small concentrations of a toxic chemical were found in a Harvard graduate student housing complex, officials announced Wednesday, though they said that levels were not high enough to raise immediate health concerns.

Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to request that Harvard contain or remove the Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) from Peabody Terrace, according to EPA spokesman David Deegan, who added that the EPA still must receive the data from Harvard to proceed in any fashion.

The PCB concentrations of 30 outdoor samples that were collected by Harvard range from undetectable levels to 3.29 mg/kg, according to University spokesman Joshua D. Poupore. Three of these samples exceeded the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection soil screening level of 2 mg/kg—a benchmark that, if exceeded, requires more testing. The EPA recommends additional screening for levels above 1 mg/kg.

In a separate collection of “wipe” samples of indoor and outdoor surfaces, the maximum detectable concentration on an indoor surface was 8.6 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, while the maximum detectable concentration on an outdoor surface was 104 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. The EPA has set a threshold of 10 micrograms per 100 square centimeters for nonporous indoor surfaces.

The PCBs were largely concentrated in the exterior caulking used for waterproofing, though low concentrations of PCBs were also found in some apartments, according to the Harvard Real Estate Services notice released Wednesday.

When in high quantities, PCBs—man-made chemicals which were commonly used in buildings built between the 1950s and 1970s and are also often found in fish—can cause cancer and harm the immune system, short-term memory, and cognitive skills of children exposed to the chemical in while in the womb.

Of the dozens of apartment complexes that Harvard offers graduate students, Peabody Terrace is particularly geared toward married couples with children—complete with a daycare center and playground areas.

After the production of PCBs peaked in 1970, Congress banned PCB manufacture in 1976 after the chemical’s toxicity emerged as an issue of concern.

Some students—such as Silvia Cruz, a joint-degree student at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School—expressed concern about the findings.

“The place is a dump,” she said. “They promised tiled floors—we got linoleum [floors] and concrete walls. There’s holes in the walls. It was dirty when we moved in.”

“I hate that place—I want to move out,” Cruz added.

Deegan said that the EPA will receive and review the details of the Peabody Terrace case at an “expedited” pace in the coming weeks.

But Poupore wrote in an e-mailed statement that since the PCB levels at Peabody Terrace are “unlikely to result in any substantial exposure or elevated health risks...Harvard does not believe that relocation of or compensation for residents will be necessary.”

There is no agreed-upon threshold PCB concentration that everyone considers hazardous, according to Donna J. Vorhees, a Boston-based environmental consultant.

“Whether anything adverse would happen in the concentration people are exposed to in the indoor environment is a question mark right now,” said Vorhees, who explained that buildings are examined for PCBs only on a case-by-case basis. “Nobody, as far as I know, has done a systematic survey of buildings in the U.S.”

Harvard will continue the three-year repair and waterproofing project that prompted the PCB discovery, according to Poupore.

Some graduate students living in the concrete complex—which has a 99 percent occupancy rate—said they are not too concerned about the discovery of PCBs in their building.

“I’m not that worried about it,” said Kayoung Kim, a student at the Graduate School of Education, explaining that the flyer he had seen Wednesday emphasized that the PCB levels found were not hazardous.

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at kavoussi@fas.harvard.edu.