Lawyers fight EPA on toxic materials in city schools
by Jess Berry
Jun 11, 2014 | 449 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NYLPI staff attorney Christina Giorgio
NYLPI staff attorney Christina Giorgio
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Children and teachers in New York City schools have been inhaling dangerous toxins for quite some time now, and may continue to do so for awhile yet.

A single voice of dissent at a Queens public meeting held last Thursday shed light on the potential shortcomings of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study looking at polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the city’s schools.

PCBs are manmade chemicals that were used in manufacturing from 1925 until they were banned in 1978. EPA risk assessor Mark Maddaloni explained the numerous potential detrimental health effects of the chemical.

“They have been implicated in reproductive development, effects on the immune system, depression, effects on the nervous system, cognitive function, liver, kidney toxicity,” Maddaloni said. “And they are deemed to be […] probably carcinogens.”

These potentially cancerous toxins have been discovered in the city’s schools, after New York Lawyers for Public Interest (NYLPI) filed a suit on behalf of a parent whose child attended a school in the Bronx with PCB contamination.

As a result, the city entered into an agreement with the EPA that it would study the problem of PCBs citywide through a five-school pilot program — one school per borough — that began in the summer of 2010.

The pilot study is over now, and the EPA is hosting public meetings to discuss the findings and the Proposed Citywide Remedy.

In the study, the city tested five different ways of lowering PCB levels in classrooms, in order to find the best solution. The five solutions tested were encapsulation of PCB caulk, removal and replacement of PCB caulk, patch and repair of PCB caulk, removal of windows with PCB caulk and removal of light fixtures with PCB ballasts.

Different borough schools were tested with different removal options, but all schools ended up having light fixtures removed “due to [the] magnitude of [the] impact of this remedy.”

The biggest conclusions of the study were that light fixtures need to be removed before anything else, PCB caulk needs to be managed and assessed on an ongoing basis and that more research needs to be done.

Regarding light removal, NYLPI represented New York Communities for Change and won a settlement in 2009 to remove PCB-contaminated light fixtures from over 750 school buildings by December 31, 2016.

Besides that, the citywide remedy will inspect and remediate caulk as necessary and inspect and maintain ventilation systems per design. The plan also states that additional studies must be conducted to determine the next steps.

However, that is not enough, according to NYLPI staff attorney Christina Giorgio, who was one of a handful of people who attended the Queens public meeting at Queens Gateway School.

“My frustration is that I look at what’s been done, and I don’t know how serious the problem is,” Giorgio said, explaining that she felt the testing that had been done was not thorough enough in its methodology.

EPA representative James Haklar said during his presentation that he felt the study had provided a lot of scientific information about PCBs.

“We have a better understanding of where PCBs can be present in a school and how they can get into the indoor air, which is our main concern,” Haklar said.

Giorgio said that tests were only done when school windows were open, which allowed additional ventilation, and so they were not scientifically conducted to account for both scenarios. She argued that there could be higher contamination levels without the added air flow.

Additionally, the city’s remedy relies on windows being open in schools to allow for ventilation of air with PCB contamination, but Giorgio pointed out that many schools do not open their windows or do not have proper ventilation systems.

“I go to these meetings and I feel worse and worse about the proposal every time,” she said.

Giorgio also said that part of the reason that almost no one showed up to the meeting was because the Department of Education (DOE) did no public outreach to promote any of the meetings in the five boroughs. She has done a lot of promotion on her own.

“If you went to the Manhattan meeting, you would have seen an entirely different scenario,” Giorgio said. “A lot of parents, and not just from Manhattan. I had Bronx parents and Staten Island parents, and the parents gave the city an earful.

“They totally got it,” she continued. “They get it, that their children are breathing this air and they are young, and they are forming, and PCB is linked to permanently depressed IQs, behavioral disabilities, all sorts of challenges for young people.”

For parents and community members who have not provided input on the proposal, Giorgio urged them to contribute their opinions.

“Your voices in this landscape is critical, because the EPA has not made its determination yet on whether it’s going to accept or recommend modifications to the city’s proposal,” she said. “The more they hear from parents, the more likely they are to fight for a more rigorous program.”

The EPA will take public comments until June 30. Comments can be sent to PCBsPreferredRemedy.Region2@epa.gov.

Note 6/16: This article was changed to correctly read that EPA tests were conducted in schools only with the windows open, not closed, as it previously stated.

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