Gotham Gazette

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Parents, Officials Seek to Rid Schools of Toxic PCBs -- Now

Photo New York City Department of Education
P.S. 199 on Manhattan's Upper West Side is one of three schools where the city has tested techniques for identifying and geting rid of toxic PCBs.

A little over two years ago, a construction project at P.S. 53 in Staten Island resulted in so much dust that a fresh layer would have to be wiped away each morning. That dust contained toxic PCBs. The chemical was discovered only because the mother of an asthmatic boy attending the school had it privately tested. The city says it also tested there but only found PCBs in the soil outside.

The city has known for over two years that the hazardous chemicals were present in dozens of schools. Hundreds more are thought likely to be contaminated. Now, as the city wraps up preliminary testing and remediation of PCBs in three schools, advocates, parents and elected officials have launched a campaign to put some fire under the heels of an administration that they see as slow to act.

Those concerned want the department to immediately begin studying the problem citywide and speed up the removal of chemicals in schools known to be affected. With the city reportedly estimating cleanup could cost $1 billion, the education department says that it still does not understand the problem fully. It contends that addressing the issue on a citywide level before the pilot program is finished next year would be inefficient and unnecessarily disruptive to students. But some charge that the city really is concerned about the money.

A Common Hazard

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used in construction for decades because of their non-flammability and their insulating properties. But due to health concerns, the federal government banned manufacture of products containing PCBs in 1979, and their use was stopped over the next few years.

Although there is no immediate short-term risk, long-term exposure has been observed to cause cardiovascular, immune and cognitive damage. In children it has been linked with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased aggression and other problems.

Despite the ban, PCBs still exist in numerous buildings throughout the city, particularly those built or renovated between the early 1950s and late 1970s. PCBs are frequently found in the caulking and lighting fixtures of these structures, where they can enter the air through leaking and aging. Over 700 schools fall into that category and could possibly be contaminated. But a survey conducted by the city's School Construction Authority and obtained by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest identified 85 schools with PCB caulk. Although there is an acceptable threshold for the presence of PCBs, the schools where the chemical was found often exceeds that limit by vast amounts.

The issue effectively grabbed the spotlight in 2008 when a Daily News investigation found the toxins in six schools. This prompted the city to admit it knew of their presence in 19 other schools. Soon, under the cloud of a lawsuit, the city entered into a consent agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to find and remove the PCBs.

This plan calls for a pilot program -- the first of its kind in the nation - at five public schools. That project would determine the most effective strategies for reducing potential exposure to PCBs, as well as to weigh possible health risks, disruption to school programs and overall costs.

Three of the five schools had testing and remediation performed over the summer. Those schools were P.S. 199 in Manhattan, P.S. 309 in Brooklyn, and P.S. 178 in the Bronx But the city says it does not want to expand the programs to dozens, if not hundreds, of other schools until it completes work on the additional two schools next summer, P.S. 3 in Staten Island and P.S. 183 in Queens.

Waiting Game

Natalie Ravitz, the Department of Education press secretary, says that the department needs more information before it can act appropriately and effectively, and that the summer's efforts proved that.

"While we are gaining valuable information, we don't yet have final results of the testing and remediation work done in the three schools this summer," she said. "During the pilot project -- which was originally focused on building caulk -- we discovered that old lighting ballasts were an additional source of PCBs," she said. "While most PCB levels came down, some rooms actually had higher PCB levels after we replaced the ballasts. So we don't have all of the answers yet."

PCBs also were discovered in broken ventilation systems.

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal counters that the city has delayed for too long: "We know where PCBs are coming from. Parents and elected officials at P.S, 199 asked for comprehensive testing years ago and the city didn't act. Had the testing been done back then, we wouldn't still be playing catch up," she said.

The fact that the pilot programs have found high levels of PCBs is reason enough to move faster, many believe. "The first thing we need to do is assess the problem citywide," said Valerie Watnick, a mother of a fifth-grader at P.S. 199 and an environmental law professor who has written about PCBs in schools. "There is absolutely no reason to wait."

The Cost of Cleanup

Replacing the lighting fixtures at two of these schools cost the city $3 million, and the Education Department recently estimated it would cost $1 billion to replace all the fixtures citywide. Rep Jerrold Nadler has said the cost may be behind the city's delay.

The city "has no sense of urgency and all they seem to be doing is avoiding spending the money,'' he has said.

The Environmental Protection Agency thinks the city could recoup its money through the increased efficiency of the new lighting. The agency is looking into getting federal funds to help replace the fixtures.

"New York City should develop a citywide plan to address the lighting ballast problem," the agency said in a recent statement. "In addition to the public health benefits, a citywide approach -- which could be phased in over a period of time -- would yield significant savings through the installation of more energy efficient lighting fixtures."

The city says it needs to wait until next summer to start work on the second two schools in the pilot program. The scope of the work, a spokesperson maintains, demands that it be done when students are out of school. Previous studies at both schools has found significant PCB levels in the caulk sampled, as revealed in the city's work plan.

Rosenthal has introduced legislation to force the city to complete testing on caulk in a year's time in all city schools. The bill has 19 co-sponsors, but "it's a heavy lift," she conceded. The assembly member plans to reintroduce it next year and include lighting fixtures and other materials known to include PCBs. "To not heed the clear evidence in front of us is a problem," she said.

If they can't get the city to act, many of those concerned would settle for having the federal government take over. "We are calling on the EPA to step in immediately and conduct thorough and careful testing and, if necessary, intensive remediation of all affected facilities," Nadler said in a press release speaking for a coalition of elected officials and unions. "With federal intervention now, we hope to avert what could become a serious public health issue for New York."

But the federal agency currently is considering weakening regulations on PCBs in caulk because of the burden its removal imposes on schools. Not surprisingly, this doesn't sit well with advocates. "There's no basis whatsoever for the EPA to even consider loosening regulations," said Miranda Massie, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. "All the science points in the opposite direction. What we need from the EPA is more aggressive action on a more urgent timetable."

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