Pushing To Be Free In School From PCBs

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PCBs are resilient; their legacy is permanency. Thirty years after their ban, these hardy chemical compounds persist in our lakes, our rivers, our bodies, and a broad diversity of animals and plants. In New York City, a growing number of parents and political leaders are trying to rid school buildings of the long-standing presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

Mounting concerns were set off last year by the Daily News, which publicized state-certified lab tests that showed high levels of PCBs in building caulking for six city public schools. Since this report, one parent has decided to sue the school system to compel PCB remediation, and several elected officials have advocated new legislation.

The impending lawsuit and proposed legislation will be highlights of a press conference Tuesday, June 23 by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. at Department of Education headquarters at Tweed Courthouse. Diaz plans to reiterate his support for concerned parents like Naomi Gonzalez, the parent who has decided to sue the DOE after unsuccessfully trying to remove her children from PS 178 in the northeast Bronx, a school where the Daily News tests found PCB levels that were 2,000 times the EPA limit. Federal law proscribes substances which contain PCB concentrations that are greater than 50 parts per million, stating that anything above this limit presents an “unreasonable risk of injury to human health.”

Diaz will also announce his support for the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public Schools Facilities Act. This legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last month, contains two provisions aimed at helping schools fund PCB cleanup. The legislation proposes the use of federal low-interest loans and grants to cover a certain percentage of PCB cleanup fees, which can be expensive. The Act’s PCB-related provisions were drafted by U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, and his fellow Bronx Congressman Jose E. Serrano, both of whom represent many Bronx parents for whom PCBs in schools has become a concern.

Diaz will also express support for an amendment to state law that would mandate testing for PCBs in city schools. This amendment was introduced to the State Assembly last year by Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, and has remained stalled there ever since.

Attendees of the borough president’s conference will include other politicians who have taken an active role in this issue, parents who send their children to schools where PCBs are a concern, and members of the New York Lawyers for Public Interest, the nonprofit firm that is representing Gonzalez.

Another topic of discussion will be why neither the DOE nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency is moving to conduct a citywide remediation of PCB-laden caulk – one of the most prevalent indoor sources of the contaminant. At the end of April, the DOE announced that it would decontaminate soil around 15 schools, but it expressed no intention to remove building caulking in the absence of renovations.

The EPA and DOE may change course in the future, but as of now, many children are attending schools that may well pose risks to their health.

Not cool for school

PCBs were first commercially manufactured in 1927. Problems from human exposure were soon revealed, in the form of acne-like pustules on the skin. A decade later, many experts understood that PCBs could cause serious health effects, but lobbying, cover-ups by manufacturers, and uninformed government administrations kept production moving forward.

PCBs were used in building caulking for its tendency to make sealant more elastic. This practice continued until 1978, when Congress banned most uses of PCBs. But by then, America’s baby boom was over, and along with it the resulting school construction boom of the 50s and 60s.

Many experts note that PCB levels have not declined as quickly as public awareness of PCBs’ toxic effects has grown. One expert, physician David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at SUNY Albany, authored a 2006 report documenting many PCB heath hazards, which are better understood today than 30 years ago. Some of these risks include the ability of PCBs to suppress the immune system, alter the reproductive system, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, enhance the effects of other carcinogenic substances, and reduce IQ and alter behavior in early life.

“One of the major health effects caused by PCB exposure is that it reduces the ability to learn,” said Carpenter. While that’s a problem in any setting, “This is just totally counterproductive for an academic environment such as a school,” he said. “It is very well documented that PCBs can reduce IQ, shorten attention span, and alter behavior.”

Robert F. Herrick, senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that “there is barely a week that goes by when there isn’t an article somewhere in the world that suggests the developmental toxicity is a source of greater concern” than in years past.

Money matters

The 21st Century Green High-Performing Public Schools Facilities Act provides for a crucial factor in addressing the PCB problem – money. Especially amid today’s budget-cutting, schools are hard-pressed to initiate costly efforts. The New York Times reported that cleanup of contaminated soil alone at French Hill Elementary in Westchester ranged between $100,000 to $400,000 – an effort spurred by a worried parent, which has served to inspire other parents, including in the five boroughs. Removal of caulking, which trims windows, doors and expansion joints, can be even pricier, especially since PCBs can migrate from the caulking to concrete, wood and other building materials.

If passed by the U.S. Senate, the Green Schools Act will provide federal funding to schools for renovations and repairs that will improve environmental standards. Due to efforts by Crowley and Serrano, PCB remediation was incorporated into a list of activities that will earn schools this kind of funding.

Crowley spokeswoman Angela Barranco said that even though it is too early to tell exactly how much each school will obtain, the legislation will serve as an important step to encourage schools to start testing. Because schools are not testing, it is difficult to determine the scope of the problem and its associated costs, Barranco said.

Cleanup also will be expensive because of the scope indicated. Approximately 260 public schools were built in New York City during the time when PCBs were used, meaning that the six schools tested by the Daily News might represent just the tip of the iceberg.

At a recent community meeting in Co-op City aimed at providing concerned parents with a forum to share concerns, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest attorney Miranda Massie, who represents parent Naomi Gonzalez, suggested that money was a major reason for why so little is being done at present. “They are simply terrified about how much this is all going to cost,” she said to the crowd of concerned parents.

Claire Barnett, executive director of the Albany-based Healthy Schools Network, said that costs are a major problem with this issue.

Massie inferred that shortage of money, and fear of costs, has encouraged the DOE to mislead the public regarding the dangers posed by PCBs. Massie said that one of the main ways in which the DOE was misinforming the public was by the use of “bogus,” outdated tests.

After the Daily News had stirred concern via its own investigation, the DOE conducted air and wipe tests within several school buildings. Although the DOE did not test the building caulk itself, the air and wipe tests revealed little or no trace of PCBs in the air or on interior surfaces. The DOE used the results of these tests to calm parents’ fears.

Massie asserts that the DOE used air and wipe tests that were designed in 1977, well before much was known about the specific dangers of PCBs to children. She said the tests were designed for adult males, but according to what is known today, those tests should not be used for anyone.

Herrick, the Harvard expert on PCBs, said that “these tests did not accurately assess the situation.” Since PCBs do not volatilize into air from caulking at all points in time, Herrick said that the air and wipe tests, which covered limited spaces and limited durations of time, cannot represent that the children are not being exposed to PCBs.

Asked whether the DOE has a position on the validity of the Daily News’ tests, spokeswoman Marge Feinberg declined to answer, and would not comment at all on this issue. Asked the same question, EPA press officer Elias Rodriguez said “no,” without any further elaboration.

Herrick, who is familiar with the state-certified lab the Daily News used for the caulking tests, did have an opinion. He said that “there is no doubt in my mind that these tests are valid.”

Parents’ precautions

Whether the fear of expensive remediation actually caused the DOE to choose a testing method that is less likely to show the presence of PCBs is a matter of debate. But there is a growing perception that the DOE is not committed to learning the truth about PCB exposure in the schools and acting on it.

At the Co-op City meeting, parent Tyrone Jenkins summed up this perception by saying, “the Department of Education is really being calculative in misinforming people.” Other parents stepped up to the podium and expressed a similar sentiment.

Gonzalez even said that the point at which she first became truly concerned was when the DOE was not able to properly answer her questions at a parent meeting. Gonzalez is a full-time teaching assistant with two children at PS 178, in first and fifth grade. She resents that her children’s school has been neglected while a school like PS 199, located in an affluent part of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was cleaned up after parents began complaining about PCBs. She says she is bringing her lawsuit as a way to get the DOE to respond to her community in a more truthful and accurate way.

Massie also said that Gonzalez’ lawsuit was announced to encourage a more active response from the EPA, which is in charge of enforcing law that regulates the use and cleanup of PCBs. Nevertheless, at the Co-op City meeting she said that, pursuant to the announcement of the suit, “the EPA has taken the position that these outcomes do not trigger anything – they don’t trigger a need to confirm or disconfirm the test results.”

EPA spokesman Rodriguez said in an e-mail that the agency suspects that many schools do have PCBs in their caulk, and the EPA is encouraging remediation by monitoring activities of the DOE and School Construction Authority. That has translated into little action, however, at the many schools that may still contain PCBs in building caulking.

Both Carpenter and Herrick suggest that modernized, standardized ways of measuring PCB exposure are needed.

Until then, activists like the Bronx parents will take inspiration from people such as Daniel Lefkowitz, the father whose difficult fight ultimately rid PCBs from his child’s elementary school in Yorktown Heights several years ago, and who started a website on the topic. The issue of PCBs in schools might not be as well known today without his efforts.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will win this fight,” Massie told the Co-op City audience. “But be prepared for a long, hard fight.”

– Hashim Rahman

Correction: Tests showed PCB levels at PS 178 in the northeast Bronx to be 2,000 times the EPA limit, not 200 times the limit. Also, according to the Daily News, in April the DOE said it would clean up 15 school sites, not 19. 6/23/09

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