PCB Testing Sought for New York City Schools

Following a pilot study regarding assessment and remediation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) present in caulk used in public schools conducted by the New York City Department of Education, the City of New York (City), the NY City School Construction Authority (SCA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more work is being demanded.

The PCB study, initiated earlier this year, only involved three New York City schools. Now, says Crains New York, a team involving “elected officials, labor unions, and community groups” demanded that the EPA begin testing the some 700 schools that could be PCB contaminated.

PCBs—which have been making headlines in recent weeks for their part in contaminating NY City’s Newton Creek and Hudson River—are 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. Because of this, 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.

As we’ve noted previously, while it is very costly to decontaminate NY City’s schools, adverse health effects, including cancer and other life-threatening diseases and disorders, have been linked to PCB exposure. Worse, because decontamination efforts have not yet been considered, students continue to be exposed, some at very high levels. The potential health effects over the past five decades are stunning.

The 13 members of the so-called Congressional Delegation urged the EPA to “immediately expand its oversight over the proper management” of PCBs in city schools, quoted Crains. “We do not want to be alarmist or scare people, but we need to find out the facts quickly,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler (Democrat-Manhattan), reported Crains. The three City schools tested—P.S. 199, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; P.S. 178, which is on Baychester Avenue in the Bronx; and P.S. 309, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—all tested with PCB levels higher those deemed acceptable by the EPA. “Our children should be absorbing knowledge, not hazardous waste,” said Representative Joseph Crowley (Democrat-Bronx), quoted Crains. Officials in the City school system say testing and clean up could cost $1.5 million per school, for a total of about $1 billion for all 700 schools, noted Crains.

PCBs include about 200 compounds and are a class of very toxic chemicals ubiquitously found in construction materials and electrical products in many buildings from the 1950s until 1978, when they were phased out. Although banned, PCBs were an element in school construction and electrical products during this time. “Children can possibly be harmed because of our inaction,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, quoted Crains.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (Democrat-Manhattan) also wrote to the EPA, along with 16 of her peers in the Assembly, asking it to broaden its PCB oversight in the City’s schools, said Crains. Of note, Rosenthal sponsored a bill in the Assembly over two years, calling for school testing. The bill remains with the Education committee; however, Rosenthal said she will reintroduce the bill during the next session.

The EPA said it has contacted federal and state officials regarding financing for a potential citywide testing and remediation program, said Crains.

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