Concerned parents and officials say that the timeline of 10 years estimated by the Department of Educaiton (DOE) and the New York City School Construction Authority to conduct energy audits, test schools for PCBs and retrofit lights, boilers and other equipment in over 700 public schools is too long and too risky.
“We need the city to move quickly to protect our children,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm to concerned parents at a recent rally on the steps of City Hall. He was joined by Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras and activists from New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Queens Congregations United for Action (QCUA) and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI).
They demanded that DOE speed up the process of replacing light fixtures contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in public schools. In 2009, the EPA found that over 85 schools in New York City - 20 of which are located in Queens - were contaminated with toxic traces of the chemical PCB on classroom windows. The PCB level in the schools were significantly higher than the EPA's limit of 50 ppm.
The report also found that roughly 740 public school buildings out of 1,600 might contain traces of PCBs, a chemical used in a variety of products from ballasts for fluorescent lighting fixtures to caulk, which seals and cushions windows to make them more elastic. Both ballasts and caulk that are found in New York City public schools today are still known to have traces of PCBs, although usage of the chemical was banned in 1979.
The ten-year plan to rid schools of PCBs, which was officially announced by the DOE in February, is off to a slow start, even after being threatened in September 2009 with a lawsuit by the NYLPI.
“Our children’s safety and the safety of our school’s staff are important and must be a priority,” said Ferreras. “We must do what is necessary to remove PCB contamination from our schools in a timely fashion, so as not to create a full-blown public health problem.”
According to the EPA, PCBs are known to cause cancer in animals and have been known to have harmful effects on the immune system, reproductive system and nervous system after long-term exposure. Toxic PCBs were commonly used in building materials for city schools constructed between 1950 and 1978.
A recent PTA meeting at I.S. 61 in Corona organized by QCUA brought out over 150 parents who expressed frustration at the city's slow response.
"I am the parent of a 6th grader here in I.S. 61," said Socorro Morales, parent leader with Queens Congregations United for Action. "Our parent-led testing of a small sample of caulk revealed an abnormally high level of PCB’s in this school, and who knows what further testing will reveal?”
PCBs are particularly harmful to children and pregnant women.
“Learning disabilities, asthma and cancer are associated with long-term exposure to low levels of PCBs," said NYCC parent leader Regina Castro. “The city's plan to remove PCB-containing lights over ten years makes no sense. Kids should be our priority. We know replacing the lights within two years is very possible.”
Morales is concerned about what remaining levels of PCBs mean for his son. “How is it possible that the DOE knows the dangers and wants to take 10 years to address this?” he asked. “I want my school thoroughly tested.”