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High PCB Levels Detected at P.S. 56

Originally published in The New York Times “The Local”


January 26, 2011

Recent tests of six New York City schools showed high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, a carcinogenic chemical that affects the respiratory and immune systems. One of the six schools tested was P.S. 56 Lewis H. Latimer on Gates Avenue.

The results give concerned parents and local leaders new ammunition in their ongoing battle with the city to test more schools potentially contaminated by PCB leaks.

“The alarmingly high levels of PCB in P.S. 56, and other schools throughout the city, should be a wake-up call that hopefully spurs serious action,” said City Councilmember Al Vann in an email statement. “The DOE’s refusal to immediately and seriously address the potentially high PCB levels within many public school buildings is unacceptable.”

The tests, conducted in December of 2010, were a concerted effort of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and New York Communities for Change. Prompted by the city’s slow reaction to the problem, the two organizations rallied to fund the tests and gather soil and caulking samples from the six schools, according to Celia Green, a parent-leader at NYCC.

Results show that P.S. 56 had a PCB level of 287,000 parts per million. At P.S. 332 in Brownsville the tests found PCB levels of 325,000 ppm. The legal limit under the Toxic Substance Control Act is 50 ppm.

Principal Deborah Clark-Johnson of P.S. 56 was not available for comment.

Many schools built in the United States between 1950 and 1978 have insulation material and lighting ballasts that contain PCBs. The chemical was used in many materials because of its ability to conduct heat and not explode. Congress banned the production of PCB chemicals in 1977 because of concerns about their toxicity and the EPA prohibited the use of the chemical in 1979.

Despite the ban, some light fixtures and window caulking installed before the bans are still currently in school buildings.

The city, in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, facilitated a pilot study over the summer in which they evaluated three schools and found high levels of PCBs. Window caulking and light ballasts laden with PCBs were replaced in all three schools. But since that summer study, the Department of Education has been slow to test and remediate other schools, according to Mandela Jones, a spokesperson for councilman Al Vann.

The source of the delay stems from the estimated $1 billion price tag to test all 739 schools that may be affected by PCB leaks.

According to Councilmember Vann’s office, a lack of funds are no excuse for delaying further testing. “Cost shouldn’t be an issue because we are talking about children’s health,” Mr. Jones said. “Cost shouldn’t be an impediment.”

“It is important that parents and the public at-large also demand that our city do right by our school children,” said Councilmember Vann. “The health of our children is too important for the city to fail in resolving this longstanding issue.”

“The city’s failure to adopt a plan to address this problem is driving parents to extreme measures,” said Miranda Massie, attorney at NYLPI. “In this case, sampling for toxins themselves.”

Parents also rely on word-of-mouth to raise awareness on the problem, said Ms. Green the NYCC member whose son is in the fifth grade at P.S. 56. “You need to do some research and find out what it is, what it does and what the levels should be,” said Ms. Green. “And if you know, you need to tell another parent.”

The EPA released an 11-page guidance manual in December to help school administrators and maintenance personnel safely remove PCB-laden light ballasts.

“As we continue to learn more about the potential risks of PCBs in older buildings, EPA will work closely with schools and local officials to ensure the safety of students and teachers,” said EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a press release.

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