City Plans to Remove Lights Leaking Toxins in Schools

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The city vowed on Wednesday to replace all lighting fixtures that contain the toxic chemical PCB in public schools within 10 years after a federal investigation uncovered elevated levels of the known neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen.

The city has allocated $708 million to remove and replace all lighting ballasts in the school system that contain the toxin banned by Congress in 1977. But some officials argued that 10 years isn't fast enough.

"[The city] can’t wait for the cancers to develop 10 and 15 and 20 years from now and then say, 'If only we had acted in time'" Rep. Jerrold Nadler said during a press conference at City Hall.

"To allow a 10-year remediation plan is to allow 10 years for potentially hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to be exposed on a long-term basis to carcinogenic, cancer-causing and otherwise harmful chemicals."

Nadler, along with State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, announced legislation the state Assembly that would establish a five-year deadline for the light replacements.

In January, the Bloomberg administration said the city should not rush to fix the problem because there was "no immediate health risk to students and staff," adding that any move without federal assistance could have a devastating consequences on the city’s education budget.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which conducted the investigation, has said students are not currently in danger. This year, the EPA has sent investigators into nine city schools and found elevated levels of the chemical, which was once commonly used in insulation. Most recently at PS 45 in Brooklyn, the EPA inspected multiple samples that contain more than 600,000 parts per million, or more than 12,000 times the federal regulatory level of 50 parts per million.

"Given that both the EPA and the Department of Health have said there is no immediate health threat to students in these buildings, we believe this is the most responsible way to proceed," schools Chancellor Cathie Black said in a statement.

Miranda Massie, litigation director for the group New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said her group may consider lawsuits to compel the city to speed up the remediation process.

“There are a number of private contractors who are prepared to work on this, and do so without any initial cash outlay by the city and just take the energy savings as their payment, there’s absolutely no basis for any longer time period than two years to do this work,” said Massie. “Given the timeline the city announced today it seems clear that the only way to get them to see reason is to litigate, which is very unfortunate.”

Massie, who had worked with some public school parents to threaten lawsuits against the city when high levels of PCBs were found in the caulk around windows and doors of a Bronx school, suggests that the potential scope of toxic caulk in schools may be why the city is dragging its feet in replacing the lighting fixtures.

“The lights are a no brainer. The caulk on the other hand is going to take a lot of thought, energy and money to address that question properly.”