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As PCB Issue Lingers, Removal Will Be Expedited at a Brooklyn School

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 - 10:46 AM

(Stephen Nessen)

A Brooklyn public school building that had leaking light fixtures will be moved to the top of the list of schools with PCB problems, and the city will replace its lighting very soon, city officials said last week.

The building, which houses P.S. 146 Brooklyn New School and Middle School 448 Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies on Henry Street in Carroll Gardens, had light fixtures known to contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These are toxic chemicals that have been associated with health effects like skin conditions and immune system and cognitive deficiencies. Research also indicates that PCBs cause cancer, with the risk rising with prolonged exposure.

The city's Department of Education's plan to replace the lighting in city schools has been controversial, to say the least, because of the pace of its timetable. Federal officials, as well as parents at a number of schools, including P.S. 146, have been pressing the city to move more quickly.

The city has a list of schools — more than 700 in all — that have light fixtures containing PCBs, and has set a 10-year timeline for the fixtures' removal.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the city’s timeline, saying removal needed to be done in five years or less.

The Department of Education has said that it wants to make the fixture removal part of a top-to-bottom energy retrofit, and that it cannot move more quickly.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said: “The potential for health effects from PCBs, as with other chemicals, depends on how much, how often and how long someone is exposed. Scientific studies have not shown PCB exposures from building materials to cause health effects in building occupants. It is very unlikely that long-term environmental exposures to PCBs in buildings will increase risk for health effects, including cancer."

But in an interview last week, Judith Enck, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator, said that the health concerns from exposure to PCBs are valid.

“We do not want children and school staff exposed,” Ms. Enck said. “There is a particular risk for pregnant women and women of childbearing age.” She added that replacing the old lighting with energy-efficient bulbs would save money, and that the plan would pay for itself within seven years.

That the city had agreed to remove the old lighting was commendable, Ms. Enck said. But officials should abandon the plan to make it part of a larger energy project. “I asked them to do a lighting replacement first, and then cycle back and do the other improvements,” she said.

The city said it could not structure the contracts in that way, but Ms. Enck said that seemed like a contract management issue that would unnecessarily increase the duration of PCB exposure. “For a while, they said they had the money but not the staff for the projects. I said to them, ‘What if I look for more money for you to hire more managers?’ They said, ‘No thanks.’”

Between 1950 and 1978, fluorescent light fixtures containing PCBs, which were used as coolants, were installed in school buildings across the city. In 1978, PCBs were banned for new construction work in the United States, after the Toxic Substances Control Act two years earlier. Now many of the light fixtures that contain them are years past their life expectancy and are at risk of leaking or even bursting.

PCBs are not just a New York City problem. Schools across the country are grappling with the issue. But New York City officials estimate that it will cost nearly $800 million for the removal of the fixtures from the 700 affected public schools — an effort that a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said was unprecedented nationally.

Until the full program can be carried out, city officials have said, schools with observed leaks will be given priority and their problems will be addressed within 48 hours of confirmation.

City officials issued a letter last year to school communities to reassure them about the risk and the city's intentions. In the letter, they quoted an article from The New York Times in which doctors from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine said PCB levels at most New York City schools would not make any child or teacher “acutely ill.”

But the statement used in the letter was taken out of context, said Dr. Maida Galvez, the director of Mount Sinai’s Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, who was one of the doctors quoted.

“I think PCBs are an incredibly complex issue to understand,” Dr. Galvez said in an interview. Ideally, she added, the city's letter should have been vetted by pediatricians, community advocates, scientists and parents.

“Our stance has been that PCBs at very high levels is something we know a lot about," she said. "Now we’re trying to understand what these exposures mean for children. In that context, the right thing to do is remove any sources of exposure as safely and quickly as possible.”

Dr. David Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, said that the city’s focus on the term “acutely ill” had led to what he called a “distorted conversation.” While it was true that PCB exposure would not lead to acute illnesses like sudden sickness, dizziness or other symptoms right after exposure, Dr. Carpenter said that was never the issue.

"The fact is that it reduces your I.Q., harms an unborn child, but those are not ‘acute effects,’” he said.

Dr. Susan Buchanan, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s school of public health, said PCBs in classroom light fixtures pose a lower risk of cancer than that from secondhand smoking or having a chest X-ray. Still, she said, “If the oily residues are exposed to the air in the classroom, then kids are likely inhaling it, albeit at a minuscule dose."

A likely reason that the city has been able to delay the removal is that there is no definitive study of children who were exposed to PCBs in schools, said Robert Herrick, a lecturer on industrial hygiene at the Harvard School of Public Health. But that does not mean the risk isn’t real, he said in an interview.

“Smoking a cigarette a day doesn’t cause you to die of cancer tomorrow," he said. "It’s the same metaphor.”

The decision to expedite the work at P.S. 146 and M.S 448 was announced Thursday by Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm.

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott had visited the elementary school recently and been presented with side-by-side comparison photos of perceived leakage from lighting elements at the school. Ms. Grimm said that officials had moved the school up the citywide list after a more thorough inspection confirmed the leaks.

Parents and elected officials have been pressuring the city to speed up the removal. Last Monday, a protest outside the school was attended by parents, community members and elected officials, including State Senator Daniel Squadron.

Also present was a representative from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which filed a second lawsuit over PCBs in schools against the Department of Education in July 2011. The first lawsuit, which was settled in October 2009, required the Education Department to establish a five-school pilot program to measure PCB levels in building caulk.

But the pilot program led to the discovery of the much more pressing problem of PCBs in light fixtures, said Christina Giorgio, a lawyer with the lawyers' group. Ms. Giorgio said they were seeking a court order to require the Education Department and the School Construction Authority to remove these lights “in a time frame that puts children first, between two to three years.”

All together, there are 266 schools and programs in 164 buildings with visibly leaking PCB ballasts where work has been given priority for entire lighting replacements.

A number of school buildings were found last year to have PCB levels that exceed the E.P.A.'s acceptable threshold of 50 parts per million. They include P.S. 68 in the Bronx, P.S. 13 Roberto Clemente/P.S. 358 Achievement First East New York Charter School in Brooklyn, P.S. 53 Bay Terrace on Staten Island, P.S. 11 Purvis J. Behan in Brooklyn, P.S. 206 Jose Celso Barbosa/P.S. 37 River East Elementary/P.S. 112 Jose Celso Barbosa early childhood in Manhattan, and P.S. 45 Horace E. Greene and P.S. 306 Ethan Allen in Brooklyn.

The city says it does “regular visual inspections” to identify schools with leaks, though some experts say that isn't enough to know the level of exposure.

“It doesn’t look like there were air levels taken, or surface wipes, or blood tests of the children,” Dr. Buchanan of the University of Illinois said.

An Education Department spokeswoman said: "We are not required to do a formal wipe test because we act so conservatively. We assume that the leaking material contains PCBs unless we know the leak came from outside the fixture, such as a ceiling tile or a water leak, or if the fixture is labeled non-PCB lighting ballast."

For schools without visible leaks, the city plans to stick to its 10-year timeline. Dr. Carpenter said it was not the right approach.

“Children breathe more air per unit body weight, they eat more food, they drink more water,” he said. “This is where kids go to learn, and if you have the air contaminated with something that reduces their cognitive functioning, that’s the ultimate harm for PCBs in schools.”

Alexis Quy, a parent at P.S. 146, said she was thrilled that the city gave the school priority. Her daughter has had neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer.

“I’ve already watched my child go through the horrific ordeal of getting chemo, radiation, multiple blood transfusions,” she said. “I have lived one of the worst nightmares for a parent to live.”

Ms. Quy urged parents from other schools to conduct their own visual checks of lighting ballasts, so that they too could be moved up the list.

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