Council rips schools over toxic PCBs

April 26, 2012 Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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NEW YORK CITY — Not only are thousands of city kids sitting in classrooms with PCB-contaminated lighting fixtures — but the city has broken the law by not giving parents information about when the fixtures will be removed, the New York City Council charges.

The Council informed the Department of Education (DOE) that the city is “noncompliant” with Local Laws 68 and 69, which require DOE to notify parents when toxic substances are found in schools and when the city plans to remove them. The law was passed with much fanfare in December after pressure from parents and health advocates.

DOE’s noncompliance is “unacceptable,” Speaker Christine Quinn said in a statement, adding that letters DOE sent out to many parents lacked the required information. “In particular, their letters fail to set forth a schedule for light fixture removal for individual schools, nor do they indicate what specific steps the department is taking to address PCB levels at these schools.”

DOE, however, disputes the charge. “We feel that we are in compliance with both local laws,” DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg told the Brooklyn Eagle Thursday. “We plan to meet shortly with Council staff to discuss their concerns.”

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Linked to Cancer and Learning Disorders

Lighting ballasts and caulking installed between 1950 and 1978 contain the now-banned PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which have been linked to cancer as well as endocrine, reproductive and immune disorders. Exposure in the womb has also been linked to learning disorders.

Parent groups, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been warning for years that prolonged exposure to PCBs could result in long-term harm to students and teachers.

Letters Downplay Risks

 “These lights are leaking en masse,” Christina Giorgio, attorney for NYLPI told the Brooklyn Eagle Wednesday. “The letter sent out by DOE — when one was sent at all — was misleading and makes every effort to downplay the risks to staff and children. DOE uses a New York Times blog entry for their scientific rational.”

In their letter to parents, DOE’s quote from the Times blog reads: “PCBs at the levels found in most schools in New York City today will not make any child or any teacher acutely ill. In fact, compared with air levels reported in some other studies, air levels reported in NYC schools have been quite low.”

“It is misleading and inappropriate to be talking about immediate health risks when the relevant health risk is long-term exposure,” Giorgio said. “In the New York Times blog post, edited for brevity, doctors from Mount Sinai School of Medicine are quoted out of context.” In fact, she said, “Mount Sinai’s news release published today lists the top ten chemicals suspected of causing autism and learning disabilities — PCBs are number three.

“The letter also suggests that the DOE has done extensive testing of PCB air levels throughout the schools. This is not true. They have tested the air at five pilot schools. And in each school where air testing was done with the windows closed, each school tested for PCB air levels above EPA guidance.”  

Schools Rife with PCBs

Figures from the New York City School Construction Authority show that the majority of the city’s schools — including roughly 70 percent of schools in Brooklyn — contain PCBs.

About half of the city’s contaminated schools are in Brooklyn, including P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights; P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights; P.S. 15 in Red Hook; Arts & Letters in Fort Greene; P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill; I.S. 98 Bay Academy in Bay Ridge; M.S. 51 in Park Slope; Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies; Khalil Gibran International Academy and hundreds more.

More than a year ago city officials announced a 10-year plan to remove the contaminated fixtures. While then-Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott called the city’s removal plan “aggressive,” parent advocates said the timeline wasn’t fast enough.

Asbestos Trouble in Cobble Hill

PCBs aren’t the only toxic substance troubling city schools this week. Protests continue at Cobble Hill’s P.S. 29 over asbestos-removal work that had been scheduled to begin this week without the legally required notification. Representatives from the School Construction Authority and DOE were expected to meet with parents, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and City Council Member Brad Lander at a PTA meeting Thursday. (More at

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