Beth Fertig is the contributing editor for education, covering the New York City public school system for WNYC on air and online at SchoolBook.org. She has covered education in the city for more than 15 years. Beth is the author of Why cant u teach me 2 read? Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test (FSG Books) which grew out of a radio series on the low graduation rate for special education students. Follow her @bethfertig.
Air Is Safe at School Where PCBs Were Found, Says City
Friday, January 14, 2011
The air is now safe at a Staten Island elementary school where PCBs had leaked from lighting fixtures, according to the city.
Tests earlier this month turned up dangerous levels of PCBs on floor tiles at PS 36 in Annadale. But recent air samples from the two classrooms where leaking fixtures were found came in at well less than the EPA's regulatory standard.
Sam Pirozzolo, president of Community Education Council 31 on Staten Island, said he's relieved but is concerned about how officials handled the matter earlier this week during a meeting at the school.
"They physically told us that every light was inspected, and we looked up and there was a light that was not inspected," he said. "We went around the partition to the cafeteria and found two more lights that had PCB ballast leaks."
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were widely used in lubricants and insulation until they were banned by Congress in 1979 because of their harmful envirornmental and health effects. They've been linked to developmental disabilities and attention deficit problems in children.
The city kept PS 36 open this week while awaiting the test results. The two classrooms were closed, but many parents kept their children home from school anyway. Attendance was just under 25 percent on Monday. By Friday it had gone up to 72 percent.
"We are inspecting the light fixtures," said Department of Education spokeswoman Marge Feinberg. "If we see stains or residue, we will remove the light fixture. If we find a ballast leaking, we will replace the ballast. If we find ballasts that are not leaking, we will replace them if we have them in stock. If we don’t have them in stock, we will take an inventory and replace them once we get the material."
The ballast is used to create the voltage and current needed to start and illuminate a fluorescent lamp.
Parents plan to meet with EPA representatives next week. The issue has become politically explosive because of a pilot study of three schools (PS 36 was not among them) that found higher than recommended levels of PCBs. Caulk was presumed to be the greatest source of PCBs but the study found lighting fixtures were also a big source. The EPA has advised school districts across the country to replace older lighting fixtures because of the high likelihood that they contain PCBs. It said ballasts containing PCBs have an average useful life of 50,000 hours and that as they age, their failure rate increases dramatically - which can lead to air contamination. But New York City is reluctant to do so because of the cost, saying it wants to do more tests. The EPA has been spot-checking schools in the meantime and is currently awaiting test results from PS 53, also on Staten Island.
Dr. David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health and toxicology at the State University of New York in Albany, believes PCBs are a real source of danger in schools. He says the danger from exposure is "incremental" and that "no one is going to die tomorrow." But he notes young children are still developing.
"The light fixtures with PCBs are a major problem and even those that aren't leaking now need to be removed," he said. "It's very likely many of these older schools do not have a problem. But you're not going to know that until you get at least more testing."