You’ve got to hand it to the public relations firm hired by the New York City Department of Education. The tag line they’ve come up with—“Children First. Always.”—is exactly what a school system should be championing.
The Cathie Black controversy aside, critics point to the fallacy of the slogan, citing ongoing problems in the school system, including overcrowded classrooms, insufficient supplies, and the Department of Education’s capitulation to the standardized testing craze that’s been sweeping the nation. But as important as these issues are, recent studies confirming that many city schools are being poisoned by degrading Polychlorinated Biphenyls—a.k.a. PCBs—may soon push these concerns to a back burner.
Although you can’t see, taste, or smell PCBs, the man-made chemicals are a known carcinogen, which is why they were outlawed in 1978, making them one of only three toxic substances to be completely banned by the government. Like asbestos and lead paint, the health risks associated with PCBs are terrifying.
Prior to 1978, PCBs played a key role in U.S. construction. Effective, non-flammable insulators, PCBs were routinely used in caulk, fluorescent light ballasts, and as a coating on bricks. They have also been found in adhesives, fiberglass, floor finishes, oil-based paint, plastic, and ventilation systems.
In fact, the substance was once so ubiquitous that activists estimate that as many as 750 of New York City’s 1,600 public schools—234 of them in Brooklyn—are possibly contaminated. What this means is that a large swath of the city’s 1.1 million students, as well as 80,000 teachers and 55,000 staff people, may be putting their health at risk each and every time they enter a classroom.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs are “a persistent organic pollutant,” meaning that it is possible to detect their presence in air, sediment, soil, and water decades after a product containing them was used. Anything exceeding 50 parts per million poses a danger, the EPA continues, and the only way to know if they’re present is to test areas where contamination is possible.
“PCBs may have serious potential effects on the immune systems of exposed individuals,” an EPA factsheet reports. In addition to cancer, numerous illnesses have been linked to all chlorinated hydrocarbons, including PCBs—chloracne; rashes; diabetes; liver damage; irregular menses and altered estrogen levels; headaches; fatigue; coughs; changes in thyroid levels; poor cognitive development; learning deficits; and the Epstein-Barr virus among them.
Activists throughout New York state credit Daniel Lefkowitz, the parent of a former student at French Hill Elementary School in Yorktown Heights, with getting the anti-PCB ball rolling. After reading a 2004 article in Environmental Health Perspectives that documented the presence of PCBs in one-third of the 24 buildings that were inspected, Lefkowitz began to wonder whether the findings were a fluke, or if his son’s Westchester County school might be similarly polluted.
Miranda Massie, Litigation Director at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), recalls,“It took a long time, but this dad pushed the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to force the district to test the school and then launch a partial remediation to fix the problem they discovered.” By 2008, Massie says, NYLPI was deeply immersed in organizing to protect people from PCBs, working in coalition with dozens of groups, including New York Communities for Change, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, the Service Employees International Union, Nos Quedamos, Earthjustice, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
“NYLPI filed an Intent to Sue notice against the Department of Education in March, 2009,” Massie says. “After this, DOE and EPA started talking to each other. When they agreed to do a pilot study in New York City public schools, we volunteered to suspend our lawsuit pending the study results.” A Consent Agreement was signed on January 19, 2010, after the City promised to evaluate PCB levels in five schools: P.S. 178 in the Bronx, P.S. 199 in Manhattan, P.S. 309 in Brooklyn, P.S. 183 in Queens, and P.S. 3 in Staten Island. The goal was clear: The studies would measure PCB levels in air, dust, and soil and simultaneously determine the most effective ways to reduce exposure.
During the summer of 2010, four rounds of tests were conducted at three of the five schools: P.S. 178, P.S. 199, and P.S. 309. The results revealed excessive PCB levels in all of them. You might have expected panic to ensue, but it did not. Instead, a statement released by the EPA in early October downplayed the problem: “The levels of PCBs found in the three schools do not pose an immediate health risk in the short term. We will continue working with the City to ensure that students, teachers, and school staff throughout New York City are protected, and that any needed repairs or renovations to address PCB problems are conducted in ways that protect everyone who works in NYC school buildings.”
The DOE is even more circumspect about the issue. As the department’s press secretary, Natalie Ravitz, wrote in an email, “Right now we are in the middle of a pilot program with the EPA, and while we are gaining valuable information, we don’t yet have the final results of the testing and remediation work done this summer. During the pilot project—which was initially focused on building caulk—we discovered old lighting ballasts were an additional source of PCBs. That’s why we spent $3 million replacing all of the lighting fixtures at two schools. While most PCB levels came down, some rooms actually had higher PCB levels after we replaced the ballasts. So we don’t have all the answers yet…We believe it would be irresponsible to move forward with a citywide plan—which potentially carries a billion dollar price tag—before we have better information and complete the pilot project.”
Ravitz’s email adds that the DOE intends to examine the remaining two schools during the summer of 2011, something Massie and other activists consider too little too late. “The Department of Education says they’re conducting an adequate pilot study and say they’ve done more than other school districts around the country to assess and remedy PCB contamination,” Massie says. “That’s true, but we still think they should be doing more. The results of this summer’s study were alarming. There may be no immediate risk to health but there are serious long-term risks to kids and school employees.”
David Newman, industrial hygienist at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, agrees. “The data constitute a red flag and warrant a more comprehensive and rapid response,” he says.
But what to do? While the EPA assures us that nothing needs to be done immediately, activists are demanding that every school built or renovated between 1950 and 1978 be evaluated—a demand that has won the support of numerous state lawmakers and City Council members. They’re also demanding that the city create an emergency protocol for the safe removal of contaminated light fixtures, caulk, and other PCB-laden products. Furthermore, they want all ventilation systems tested and those deemed faulty repaired. Then there’s the issue of process, and parents, lawyers, lawmakers, and community activists are demanding that the DOE operate with transparency—providing concerned parties with a school-by-school account of PCB levels along with a detailed game-plan for remedying the problem. Lastly, they expect to be included in the development of all future policies on school health and safety.
Coordinated by New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the activists concede that they have barely scratched the surface of a problem that goes far beyond the city’s borders. Yet as the first major locale to address PCB contamination, New York City is setting a precedent. NYCC members say that researchers now can begin to investigate likely PCB fallout—from skyrocketing learning disabilities to increased childhood cancers. The potential linkages will likely indicate a problem of unprecedented proportions.
This past June, an EPA report hinted at the enormity of the crisis. Entitled PCBs in Caulk: Evaluation of Mitigation Methods and Source Characterization,the document estimates that the cost of removing PCBs from every building in the U.S. that is contaminated will be between $150-200 billion. And that’s before we factor in the cost of special education and medical care for those affected—but as every parent can attest, the clean-up is really a small price to pay.