Volume 80, Number 31 | January 5 — 12, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Feds are charged up to chuck school PCB-packing lights

By Aline Reynolds

The city Department of Education and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are at odds concerning recent discussions over eliminating possible airborne toxins from public schools.
The E.P.A. released guidelines last Wednesday for the safe and immediate removal of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB’s, from electrical lighting ballasts in school buildings. The city D.O.E., though, is not quite ready to jump onboard with the program and is specifically questioning the urgency of the E.P.A.’s claims.

In a recent letter to Dennis Walcott, the city’s deputy mayor for education, the E.P.A. recommended that all PCB-containing lighting fixtures be removed in a safe and “expedited” fashion. The E.P.A. hopes to schedule school inspections in the coming months with D.O.E.’s help, according to Judith Enck, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator. Enck also suggested that D.O.E. create a working group to produce a written strategy plan by March 15, 2011.

In response to Enck’s letter, Walcott said a wholesale replacement of ballasts is “an inadequately informed risk management strategy.”

The chemicals, used as insulators in school buildings prior to 1979, are toxic and pose long-term health threats to students, teachers and staff, according to medical reports.

The E.P.A. and D.O.E. co-launched a pilot program last year, testing PCB levels in five schools around the city. Three of the schools had broken lighting ballasts, which, if not properly dismantled, can cause the dangerous chemicals to seep into the air. Ballasts are the small brackets that fluorescent light bulbs connect into and through which voltage flows into the bulbs.

Walcott also questioned the E.P.A.’s scientific assessment of the pilot program, arguing that health studies have not tied the PCB levels to direct health effects among students or staff.

“Available health literature suggests that the theoretical risk of health impacts is too low from this exposure…to justify a public health-driven intervention to immediately remove all PCB-containing ballasts in all New York City public schools,” Walcott wrote. Limiting PCB exposure, therefore, merits “a more thoughtful and careful evaluation of realistic risk management strategies,” he said.

Replacing the lighting ballasts in the nearly 800 public school buildings that are potentially contaminated, Walcott explained, would amount to $1 billion and would require “unprecedented” amounts of supervision and manpower. The steep investment, he said, could result in staff layoffs, a loss of educational programs and a halt of school construction projects around the city.

“We believe that this discussion should include federal funding to allay the vast financial burdens on the city of such an initiative,” the deputy mayor said.

Nineteen schools in the Downtown Manhattan area were built prior to 1979 and are therefore at risk of PCB contamination, according to data collected by Communities for Change, a citywide organization representing low-income families.

“We saw what happened with lead and paint — we decided we had to be a part of finding a solution to this,” said Jonathan Westin, president of Communities for Change.

“Parents are really concerned about the future of their children’s health,” said ALord Allah, chairperson of the School District 1 Parent Advisory Council.

Allah has been educating Lower East Side schools about the dangerous toxins since last fall. He distributed petitions to local parents and teachers, requesting their schools be tested for PCB’s. Communities for Change and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest then sent the petitions to D.O.E. and E.P.A.

The city, however, might have to comply with the E.P.A.’s initiative in order to avoid federal penalties. Failing lighting ballasts, according to Enck, puts the city at “substantial risk” for noncompliance under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

As for the costs, the E.P.A. says, new lighting fixtures will pay for themselves in long-term energy savings. The city is also eligible for federal bonds that would help finance the plan, according to the E.P.A.

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, along with fellow New York Representatives Jose Serrano and Joseph Crowley, recently introduced the Safe Schools, Healthy Kids Act, a new law that would set up a federal grant program to finance PCB cleanup in schools.

“We welcome these guidelines for the aggressive and comprehensive abatement of lighting ballasts under the oversight of the E.P.A., and we renew our call on New York City’s Department of Education to step up its testing and remediation program,” Nadler and Crowley said in a joint statement.

Nadler formed a citywide coalition on the issue last October, urging the E.P.A. to take immediate action on the potential PCB threat. He said he plans to work with Downtown schools and communities, as well as citywide, in an effort to do away with the toxins.

Long-term exposure to the chemicals can cause cancer, immune disorders and hormonal imbalances in children, according to Dr. Warren Licht, chief medical officer at Downtown Hospital. He stressed, however, that the substance is only dangerous if it becomes airborne.

“If it’s sitting idle in a wall somewhere without being disturbed, I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said.

PCB’s were once widely used to insulate electrical equipment since they are non-explosive and have a high tolerance for heat. The E.P.A. banned their distribution in 1979, however, after learning about their health effects.

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