New York City, EPA at Odds Over PCBs in Schools

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released guidance recommending that schools take steps to reduce potential exposures to <"">Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from older fluorescent lighting fixtures.

PCBs, man-made chemicals that persist in the environment, were widely used in construction materials and electrical products prior to 1978. PCBs 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 have been turning up in New York City schools and, the guidance, which is part of the EPA’s efforts to address potential PCB exposures in schools, is based on evidence that older ballasts contain PCBs that can leak when ballasts fail, leading to elevated PCB levels in the air of schools.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that, despite the risks, city officials prefer a slower, multi-year program versus moving more immediately. According to the city, the cost to replace the lighting fixtures could end up being one billion dollars, which they feel is better used on academics, said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In her mid-December letter to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck wrote, “We have no understanding of how this figure was arrived at. Retrofits carried out at other school districts in this region and elsewhere have been considerably less costly. The New York City Long Term Action Plan for Reducing Energy Consumption, published in July 2008, projected an equipment replacement and retrofit cost of $1.8 billion for all city-owned buildings and schools,” quoted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The Deputy Mayor disagreed saying, quoted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “To our knowledge, we are still the only major municipality in the country that has entered into a binding agreement with the EPA to study the issues of PCBs in school buildings and to develop measures to reduce PCB exposures. We are also the only major municipality that has legally committed to drafting and negotiating a system-wide PCB management plan. At this point, we believe it fair to say that the New York City Pilot Study—which has been fully funded by the city, not EPA—has generated more data on PCBs in school buildings than any other study previously in existence.”

The 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.

Given their widespread use before they were banned, if a school was built before 1979 or has not had a complete lighting retrofit since 1979, the fluorescent light ballasts probably contain PCBs. Intact, functioning ballasts do not pose a health threat; however, these lighting ballasts will all fail in time.

While replacing lighting ballasts requires an upfront investment, there are state, federal, and private funding programs available to potentially provide funding. Also, replacing older ballasts with newer lighting fixtures will result in energy savings that will increase energy efficiency in schools and likely pay for itself in less than seven years, depending on hours of operation and local energy costs.

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