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Council Mandates City Alerts on PCB Dangers

Monday, December 19, 2011 - 05:39 PM

The City Council voted on Monday to require the city to notify parents when toxic chemicals are discovered in the fluorescent light fixtures illuminating many of the classrooms in city schools.

The law, which has the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, makes it mandatory for the Department of Education to give parents and school staff regular updates on the status of PCB light fixtures and the city's actions to replace them.

For years, parent and community groups, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, have warned the city that prolonged exposure to the chemical compound could harm students, but until recently the Bloomberg administration disputed the urgency of removing the fixtures.

"Currently and unfortunately, the Department of Education's policy as it relates to PCBs is unclear, inconsistent or maybe even non-existent," said the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn.

"If a custodian finds a leaking light fixture that’s presumed to contain PCBs in a school, because of our bill, parents and teachers will be notified," she said.

Department of Education officials disputed the speaker's statement and said they already notify families and teachers when a PCB leak is discovered.

"We notify parents and the school communities where we have observed leaks and about the progress in removing the fixtures," said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

More than 750 of the city's roughly 1,750 schools are believed to have light fixtures that could contain PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which were legally used between 1950 and 1979, before they were banned by the federal government.

Public School 30, an elementary school in East Harlem, has 2,020 of these light fixtures, and a Department of Education document lists the status of the school's air contamination as "unknown."

In February, the Bloomberg administration announced a $708 million plan to replace school light fixtures containing PCBs over the next 10 years. A second bill approved by the Council on Monday requires the Department of Education to submit an annual report to Council tracking its progress in removing PCB lighting.

Some advocates for the fixtures' quick removal criticized the city's plan as too slow to clean up a widespread problem.

In July, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest sued the department on behalf of New York Communities for Change, a coalition of families, claiming that a 10-year plan would put children at risk.

The toxic chemical compound is used in lighting ballasts — devices that regulate electric current for fluorescent lights — and has been known to leak onto light fixtures and floor tiles.

While there is no immediate health risk from PCBs in schools, health experts say that the longer the chemical is allowed to remain in place, the more harmful it could become for students and school staff. Long-term exposure to PCBs can cause cancer and affect the immune and reproductive systems.

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