PCBs in Schools

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Environmental Protection Agency has found PCB contamination to be "prevalent" in New York City schools, and as the school year gets under way, parent, teacher and community groups have been demanding the cleanup of affected schools. Industrial hygienist Monona Rossol, author of Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All, and Miranda Massie of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, explain the dangers of these chemicals and looks at how to eliminate them.


Miranda Massie and Monona Rossol

Comments [22]

H from Harlem

Great show and guest from NYLPI

Sep. 23 2011 01:53 PM
Phil from Park Slope

There is a huge red container outside the school across the street from me (John Jay) labeled as containing asbestos. Every day a crew of workers wearing no protective gear throw bags and bags of waste into the container and huge clouds of dust billow out. Are they just using an asbestos container for normal refuse removal, or are they endangering themselves an everyone on the block? I am very concerned about this, but have no idea what to do or who to ask about it. I would appreciate any information.

Monona Rossol responds:
Phil, I would take a couple of pictures of the dumpster and even better, if you can get one with the workers dumping stuff in it--Whee! The call 311 and ask to talk to someone in the Department of Environmental Protection. When you get to someone in the DEP, make sure you tell them you have pictures. I find that helps to let them know you have documented the problem. You can also go on the DEP's website and e-mail them. Good luck. Monona

Sep. 23 2011 12:42 PM
Linda Rosenthal from Manhattan

I am Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, representing the Upper West Side and parts of Hell's Kitchen. I have been fighting to rid schools of PCBs, and if you want to get involved in the effort, please email me at or call my office at 212-873-6368. Thanks.

Sep. 23 2011 12:42 PM
Bryan from NY, NY

Are we paying close attention what happens to these materials after they are removed?

Monoa Rossol responds:
Bryan, Excellent question! That's the other half of this monster problem. Most of the toxic landfill areas are at least in locations that make the stuff less available to the environment, but how long will that last? They put heavy plastic/rubber membranes under these areas so the chemicals cannot access ground water. Do we really think these barriers are eternal? All we are doing is buying time. If we use that time to find ways to address the chemicals in a more permanent way, it will be worth it. But I don't see much attention to this issue.

Sep. 23 2011 12:40 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Oy. How many city officials does it take to change the light fixtures? And what's it going to take to get them to do it?

Monona Rossol responds:
The answer is: You. You need to make them do it. If enough of us get together, they have to do it. I'm old and remember how we made things happen in the 60s and 70s. We need to do it again. We can start by supporting the kids sitting in on Wall Street. We should all be there.

Sep. 23 2011 12:38 PM

I am concerned that the City is only using the old PLM method to test for asbestos in schools. TEM and other methods detect asbestos -- but city fails to utilize

Joel R Kupferman
New York Environmental Law & Justice Project

Monona Rossol responds:
Hi Joel, TEM especially should be used when dust from buffed floor tiles might be present. And the tiles can only be bulk sampled by TEM. Of course, you and I know that PLM is fast, dirty and cheap. And hell, they aren't even doing that often enough! ((hugs))

Sep. 23 2011 12:38 PM

"Why can't we replace the lighting in 2 years? Why does it have to take 10 years?"

"We just can't."

This, in a nutshell, shows you how deeply disgusting and corrupt politicians are, and why every goddamn one of them needs to be ejected out of office, by force if necessary, and never be heard from again. This story practically made me puke.

Monona Rossol responds:
Nicholas, We can both put our heads over the sink and barf together. And the very fact that a person would say "we just can't" and not be run out of town on a rail does not speak well for the people who heard him say it. We must not let them get away with answers like that. You hold 'em, I'll hit 'em.

Sep. 23 2011 12:34 PM
Alex from NYC

Meanwhile, Bloomberg himself lives in several hyper-decorated luxury mansions. I'm sure he tested the *&*((& out of *those* environments before investing those millions in the interior decorating and priceless artwork in *those* buildings. Green mayor indeed.

Sep. 23 2011 12:32 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

Unfortunately, we will never look to Europe for anything! We are far too arrogant.

Monona Rossol responds:
Sophie: Right on. And we won't until it hurts industry right square in the pocket book. I can hardly wait to hear the Republicans when they learn the EU has adopted the United Nation's version of the material safety data sheet (required information on ingredients and toxicity of chemical products) and the US will have to do the same if we want to do business with the EU. Taking our orders from the UN? They'll have a hemorrhage.

Sep. 23 2011 12:31 PM
Carl N Steeg, MD from Manhattan

Could you provide some data as to how much illness has actually been attributed to the PCBs in the schools?

Monona Rossol responds:
Carl, In order to do that, you would have to compare the statistics from people in PCB schools with a known and tested exposure with an epidemiologically matched population of people who were similar in all ways except for the PCB exposure. And while it might be possible to find an exposed school population, there are no unexposed people in the world anymore. Babies world wide are born with a body burden of PCBs.

So you see the problem. We know that cancer has gone from a relatively rare disease in the 1800s to one which will affect almost one in three Americans in their lifetime. Which cancers were due to PCBs? It's impossible to know. And we live in a sea of carcinogens and toxic chemicals now, about 400 of which are probably in your blood stream right now.

Industry loves it when you ask question like you just did. And rather that explain it as I did, they will say some that is true, but misleading. They will say, "there is no study documenting even one cancer from exposure in the schools." And people who accept that answer are a big part of the problem.

Sep. 23 2011 12:30 PM
Hugh Sansom

Let's also remember that the right-wing dogma in the US — embraced by 100% of Republicans and most Democrats (including Obama) — is that we should have NO regulation at all. The mythology is that the "free market" will take care of this.

Meanwhile, the United States — corporations, the Federal government, and state governments — have lobbied in Europe to get the EU to relax its rules. Indeed, the US has rattled sabers about EU rules being illegal restrictions on trade.

The precautionary principle is expressly, viciously, violently rejected by American politicians, pundits and corporations even when they ALREADY know about toxicity. This was the case with lead in paint and with tobacco.

The US _allows_ the sale of materials it KNOWS are toxic — including to children.

Monona Rossol responds:
Hugh, Right on. Our response to the EU's requirement to test chemicals was to send lobbyists over their to pressure them to drop their plans. The fact that the lobbyists got no where was one of the EU's finest hours in my book.

If you want to add another story to your list, the EPA banned asbestos and the asbestos industry took them to court and got the ban overturned. There was not enough "evidence!" How big a pile of bodies do they need? In fact the asbestos industry won the right to make the vinyl asbestos tiles again. As far as I know they have not done so, but the fact that they can if they want to is beyond my comprehension. So while you are at it, let's take a swing at the courts, too.

Sep. 23 2011 12:29 PM
Peter from Brooklyn

Can you possibly give us a refresher on the effects of these chemicals and possible alternatives?

Monona Rossol responds:
Peter, When I was preparing for this program, I thought someone might ask that, so I googled, "PCBs history" and found some very interesting summaries of the vast numbers of worker, animal, environmental, and other studies from the 1930s to now. You might want to do that, too. They really knew they were carcinogens very early on, but they were not formally listed as carcinogens and endocrine disrupters until 1991. So that's 60 years worth of haggling over something that should have been obvious from the beginning.

Sep. 23 2011 12:23 PM
john from office

Sounds like a anti Bloomberg (strong executive) crusade.

Monona Rossol responds:
John, I'm not sure of your meaning here. We're certainly not averse to a strong executive if he does the right thing. But in this case, he is not.

Sep. 23 2011 12:22 PM
Hugh Sansom

The two guests have made several great points.

Worth noting that the current dogma is that government is supposed to operate like a business, and petty dictator Michael Bloomberg takes that very literally.

Mr. Lopate had Yale scientist Jon Wargo on over a year ago discussing, among other things, the ways in which we have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the Earth's biosphere.

Not only are millions of chemicals legally used with NO regulation, the vast majority have NEVER been investigated for safety. Manufacturers are allowed to _self-certify_ on safety.... Much as Big Tobacco and leaded paint makers were allowed to.

Monona Rossol responds:
Hugh. Right you are! And you are making one of the same points I make in my book. There are 63 million chemicals registered by the Chemical Abstract Service and only about 1000 chemicals have been studied worldwide for cancer effects. Those numbers are appalling.

Sep. 23 2011 12:21 PM
Stephen from Inwood

Go to any fluorescent fixture web site and you will see the "black box" is a ballast. Transformers are used elsewhere in lighting.

Monona Rossol responds:
Stephen, I looked at the definition of an electronic ballast and it "employs transistors to alter mains voltage frequency into high-frequency AC while also regulating the current flow in the lamp." That sounded to me like a transformer since it transforms one voltage frequency to another. And indeed, one supplier (Global) called one of their devices a transformer ballast. But you are right. Technically a transformer transfers electrical energy from one circuit to another.

Sep. 23 2011 12:21 PM
molly from NYC

Why isn't this a huge story in NYC? Most public school parents I know aren't even aware of this issue! How can we get the word out and get the information and changes we need to protect our kids?

Monona Rossol responds:
Molly, Oh how I wish I knew how to answer that question. We talk, we send e-mails, we call people, we hold public meetings, we write information sheets and make them free on websites, nothing seems to work. People all seem to busy to get involved. If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears.

Sep. 23 2011 12:20 PM
john from office

Is it not the case that in a modern world you a bound to be exposed to all kinds of chemicals. Should we all just stay home. Should we ban cars, trucks.

Monona Rossol responds:
John, Ah, now I know where you are coming from. Might just as well smoke, eat PCBs for lunch, and cross the freeway without looking, eh?

Sep. 23 2011 12:19 PM
Alexandra from Astoria from Astoria

Do we know if the city's Catholic schools have the same lighting? And if not, how do we find out?

Monona Rossol responds:
Alexandra, Go to school, take a look and maybe even ask the custodians a few questions. If you are a parent that is your right. I can only go in to a school if I'm there at the request of the school or of employees in the school as their representative. So you actually have more freedom to look around than I do. But almost any older school building is likely to have those lights in them.

Sep. 23 2011 12:16 PM
Lee from A city in NY

Hi Monona et al. I belong to a group of artists who are moving into a school building built in 1891. Most of our individual studios were used until about 5 years ago as classrooms (mine was an office). It is clear that any testing for PCB's, radon, etc. will have to be arranged individually by the renters if we want clear answers and peace of mind. What tests should we have done, and how do we go about performing these tests? Although it's regrettable that the landlord is so laissez faire, what I'm really looking for is some information about how we can have the appropriate testing performed ourselves. Thanks for any help you can give us

Sep. 23 2011 12:15 PM
john from office

The issue here is the cost. How do you pay for this. The City is proposing to do it over time. The chance of these transformers opening is minimal.

Monona Rossol responds:
Geez John, The PCBs leaking from these has been a constant problem since the 1970s and is very well-known. The PCB levels in the schools have been documented as high and the ballasts are the source in many cases. Kids are being exposed and we need to move now.

Sep. 23 2011 12:12 PM
MIke from Brooklyn

Off topic but I just wanted to say how much I've loved Andy's hosting this week. You have done a great job I and really think wnyc should give you a permanent gig!

Sep. 23 2011 12:09 PM
stuart from manhattan

Please discuss whether the schools are replacing traditional incandescent lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL), which contain mercury, and if this is as hazardous as PCBs. Thanks.

Monona Rossol responds:
Stuart, We answered this during the program and basically the answer is yes. They are still safer than PCBs, and one day, there will be LED technology that is even more energy efficient.

Sep. 23 2011 12:01 PM

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