PCB Furor Over Staten Island School

<"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/PCBs_health_concerns">PCBs have been turning up in New York City schools through older ballasts—lighting fixtures—that can leak when ballasts fail, and have been making headlines for their part in contaminating New York City’s Newton Creek and Hudson River.

Recently PCBs were discovered in two classrooms at PS 36 on Staten Island, said WNYC, leading to closure of those classrooms. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, in his letter to Michael Mulgrew, head of the teachers union, said the move was a “precaution”; the classrooms would stay closed “until we are certain there is no health concerns,” quoted WNYC.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals that persist in the environment, and which have been linked to a number of adverse health effects, including, most recently, increased blood pressure. PCBs were widely used in construction materials and electrical products prior to 1978. The toxins can affect the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems and are potentially cancer causing if they build up in the body over long periods of time.

PCBS are also significantly problematic because they do not easily degrade and do bioaccumulate infiltrating plants, crops, fish, and small organisms, ultimately reaching those who eat these products. This means nearly every human being carries some PCB in his/her body, which can also be passed from mothers to children during pregnancy and in breast milk. PCBs can remain in our bodies for many years; the longer we live, the more these toxins build in our systems, increasing in strength over time.

According to Walcott, “the affected materials” had been removed from the classrooms; however, it is not clear if the reference was to light fixtures, tiles, or other items, said WNYC. Walcott said that after speaking with the city’s Health Commissioner, there was no reason to close down the school, added WNYC. Staten Island councilman Vincent Ignizio disagrees, saying that keeping the remainder of the school open is a mistake due to the chemical’s toxicity. “I don’t believe that the current situation at PS 36 is safe for people to be occupying the building,” said Ignizio. “The DOE disagrees, but they’re not scientists either,” quoted WNYC.

Ignizio seeks a third-party monitor, “in this case, the United States EPA, to come in, do some testing, and say this school is safe. Then I would be able to look people in the eye and say I believe it’s safe,” said reported WNYC. Miranda Massie, an attorney in the environmental justice division of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest agrees, pointing out that early tests on floor tiles contaminated by a PCB spill from a ballast, showed PCB levels between 1,000 and 12,000 parts per million (ppm), wrote WNYC. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the safe level or exposure to PCBs is no more than 50 ppm, noted WNYC.

“There’s every reason to think that other lights in that building have leak problems,” said Massie. “Even if they haven’t spilled to outside the fixtures, it’s overwhelmingly likely they’ve spilled within the light fixtures,” quoted WNYC. “… there is absolutely no doubt” she added, that hundreds of other public NY City schools face similar contamination.

A pilot study, which was initiated earlier this year, involved three New York City schools. A team involving elected officials, labor unions, and community groups has since demanded testing of some 700 schools that could be PCB contaminated. EPA believes many schools built in the U.S. before 1979 have light ballasts containing PCBs.

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