City resists air testing for schools with known PCB leaks

On Tuesday, the New York City School Construction Authority released an updated list of 215 public school buildings where the Department of Education has reported signs of lighting fixtures leaking polychlorinated biphenyls — the chemical substance known by the abbreviation PCBs.

The contaminated lights have been removed, and the schools fast-tracked for the replacement of all lighting fixtures in their buildings. That’s because PCBs are a probable human carcinogen that may also affect the reproductive and nervous systems.

But there’s one thing the Department of Education has previously said it will not do: test the air in affected buildings for contamination, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has urged it to test before allowing children and teachers back in the classroom after leaks.

“EPA stressed the need for air sampling after catastrophic ballast failures,” wrote John Gorman, chief of pesticides and toxic substances at the EPA, in a January letter to the School Construction Authority critiquing city protocols for handling PCB leaks in school buildings.

“New York City responded by stating that it would not perform air sampling, citing the need for practicality.”

The letter goes on to say that leaks would have a “large effect” on a building’s indoor air quality.

“To ensure the safety of the school community, we reiterate that air sampling should be performed,” Gorman wrote.

The School Construction Authority and Department of Education were not available for comment on Tuesday evening on the possibility of further testing at the listed schools.

Many city schools’ aging fluorescent light fixtures harbor PCBs in the ballasts, which control electrical current. While it has embarked on a $700 million, 10-year project to replace all the fixtures, New York City has only tested the air in a handful of schools for PCBs, as part of a 2010 pilot study by the City Department of Education and the School Construction Authority.

PS 199 on the Upper West Side was one of them. The testing found that PCB levels in the air in some parts of the building were still above EPA guidelines even after the contaminated lighting fixtures were removed.

“The entire time my son was in elementary school, it was contaminated with PCBs,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, a co-president of the PS 199 parent association, whose son Jude is now in the fifth grade. “Who knows what this means for him in the future.”

Lipkin said a pregnant teacher at her school and a student’s family were so concerned about the effects of PCBs they left PS 199 for other schools.

“There is lots of focus on light ballasts, which is great. It’s important to get the light ballasts out,” Lipkin said. “But that isn’t the be all and end all.”

The New York City Department of Education said it has so far replaced lighting fixtures in 157 schools as part of its citywide program, and continues to monitor the schools in the pilot program.

“As part of the pilot, we continue to conduct seasonal air testing at PS 199M and they are posted on the SCA website. In addition, we are replacing lighting fixtures in hundreds of our schools,” said spokeswoman Marge Feinberg in an email.

“In February 2011, we announced a 10-year plan to replace lighting ballasts in school buildings to reduce potential exposure to PCBs. We are the first in the country to do this. PCBs have been used in buildings throughout the country until 1978,” she said.

When asked if the city planned to conduct any more air testing, Feinberg said, “We continue to conduct seasonal air testing as part of the pilot.”

PS 282 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is one of hundreds of schools around the city with confirmed leaks of PCBs from its lighting fixtures. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Air testing is expensive. Each building is subject to multiple tests, each of which costs $200 to $500 for lab analysis, according to two testing companies. In addition, a contractor must be hired to conduct the tests, another major expense.

EPA recommendations for acceptable air levels of PCBs aren’t enforceable by law, in contrast with its regulation of materials such as caulking where the agency has the authority to force removal.

Lipkin said she was frustrated with the Department of Education’s initial response but said the department is beginning to grasp the urgency.

“It has been the most utterly frustrating thing in the world,” Lipkin said.

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