Toxic Until 2022?

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DOE says it will take a decade to rid public schools of PCBs

It's a strange day in New York City when toxic chemicals could become as commonplace in schools as pencils, books and tater tots.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls?more commonly known by the abbreviation PCBs?could potentially be present in at least 700 public schools in the city, says a list compiled by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) and distributed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler. PCBs are believed to cause cancer as well as serious damage to the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems in humans. The compounds were used in construction materials like insulation, electrical equipment and lubricants in the 1950s and '60s until they were banned by the EPA in 1978.

In 2010, the city allowed the EPA to conduct a pilot test program, measuring PCB levels and determining remediation strategies for five schools-one in each borough. While Downtown schools weren't included in the pilot program, several schools in the area that are potentially contaminated with PCBs were part of the NYLPI list, including P.S.184 Shuang Wen in the Lower East Side and P.S. 150 in Tribeca. (The full list can be found on the NYPLI website.)

The results from the schools that were included in the pilot program were astonishing. At P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side, there were higher-than-average levels of PCBs, 600-1100 nanograms per cubic meter in the indoor air at the school. The EPA's reference dose, the quantity of PCBs that a person can be exposed to daily over a lifetime with little appreciable damage or risk, is 200 to 300 nanograms per cubic meter.

The city has acknowledged the need to remove all known sources of PCBs from public schools, the biggest of which are old light ballasts, but the method of removal, including testing, proper abatement, determing the order in which schools will be worked on as well as a timeline and funding, are up for fierce debate among parents, politicians, health experts, the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority (SCA). "What we've been pushing for is that the city should come up with a remediation plan to remove these light ballasts quickly," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents the west side of Manhattan from the Upper West Side to Downtown. "They've got a 10-year plan and that is simply not acceptable."

A few weeks ago, the City Council passed a new law requiring schools to notify parents when PCBs are found and at what levels. Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes much of Downtown Manhattan from Tribeca to the South Street Seaport to Chinatown and the Lower East Side, noted that the Council is pushing for a much shorter, two-year plan to inspect all city schools for PCBs. Chin said 18 schools in her district were built between 1959-1978.

"The SCA is in our school regularly. This has been a constant thing at our school, a constant string of testing and results and the action plan," said Michelle Lipkin, co-president of the P.S. 199 PTA. Lipkin said they've been dealing with PCB issues for the past four years, ever since they were first discovered in the building and the SCA removed all of the lighting ballasts.

Ballasts made before the 1979 ban were filled with PCBs because the chemical compound acts as an excellent flame retardant, which kept fluorescent lighting fixtures from catching fire when the electrical current was switched on. This technology is now obsolete and the latent PCBs are either leaking or about to, but the ballasts need to be removed by abatement technicians who can not only safely take them down but also ensure that the PCB levels surrounding them remain low.

Because of the cost and sheer scale of the project-an estimated $850 million-the city has set a 10-year timeline for removal. But now the communities around these affected schools are fighting back.

Community Board 7, of the Upper West Side, recently penned a resolution, which they took to the full board this week. The resolution asks that "John King of the New York State Department of Education instruct the SCA to expeditiously inspect all schools constructed before 1978 or PCB contamination in lighting fixtures; and that the SCA lighting fixture remediation program be completed within the EPA recommended two- to three-year timeframe." The state is not required to adhere to the EPA's guidelines, but many are hoping that they will.

The DOE, however, emphasized that they are doing more than other cities and insisted that their timeline is reasonable.

"Our plan to replace light fixtures in more than 700 school buildings is unprecedented compared to other cities, and PCBs are a nationwide issue," said Natalie Ravitz, director of communications at DOE, in an emailed statement in response to questions about the DOE's handling of the removal. "While some people think we should spend more and do this faster, we continue to believe this is an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimum disruption to student learning and generate significant energy savings for the city and taxpayers in the long run."

But others believe that the matter is far more urgent.

"PCBs are very very dangerous when it comes down to children's development," said Christina Giorgio, a staff attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) in their environmental justice department. "[They] attack every system of the human body. You will have permanently depressed IQs with long-term exposure. When you're talking about the school environment, you are indisputably talking about long-term exposure."

NYLPI has filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of New York Communities for Change, a group that includes many concerned parents, to force the DOE and SCA to remove the ballasts sooner under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires that PCBs are properly removed immediately wherever they are found.

"What the DOE likes to say is that there's no immediate health risk. Provided you're not a pregnant woman, if you walk into a room that is contaminated with a high level of PCBs, are you going to drop over dead? No, you're not. But that's not what we're talking about," Giorgio said.

While all agree that the health risks are accumulated over time, some are insisting that any amount of time spent in PCB-tainted air is too much, especially for women.

"There's a great deal of research showing risks to pregnant woman now, women who plan to become pregnant in the near future and even those who want to have families a decade from now," said Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice NY. Other groups advocating for women's reproductive rights, including Planned Parenthood, have stepped forward to urge the DOE to move more quickly to remove PCBs.

Miller said that her organization understands that the DOE has a lot on its plate; they aren't asking for immediate removal, they want the DOE to get started quickly and consider stepping up the schedule.

"A woman working in our schools shouldn't have to trade her ability to have a healthy pregnancy," Miller said. "We're just asking that they take this seriously and take a closer look at what the experts are recommending as far as an appropriate timeline."

"It's a matter of putting pressure on the city and on the administration," said Nadler. "They claim it will cost $700 million to $1 billion. We don't think it will cost that much, but even if it did, we need to do it. We would come up with the money if it were an immediate catastrophe. This is a slow-moving catastrophe."

As for when Downtown schools might see new ballasts in their schools, members of New York Communities for Change learned that the city will prioritize the retrofitting of new ballasts in the following order: schools with visual signs of leaks, elementary schools built between 1950-1966, secondary schools built between 1950-1966, elementary schools built between 1967-1979, secondary schools built between 1967-1979, elementary schools built before 1950 and secondary schools built before 1950.

As evidenced by the City Council's resolutions, Chin believes awareness of PCBs is growing but that advocacy is still needed. She pointed out that principals and custodians must work to alert the DOE when ballasts clearly show signs of PCB leaks and repairs need to be made. She added that the EPA could help in educating communities and schools on PCBs.

"Advocacy has to continue," Chin said, "especially on the [City Council's] Education Committee. This will be an ongoing process."

- With additional reporting by Marissa Maier

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