Plan to Remove PCBs from New York City Schools Finally Announced

After months of wrangling, New York City has finally announced a plan to remove PCB-laden light fixtures from almost 800 schools. According to The New York Times, $708 million has been allocated to the plan to remove <"">PCBs from New York City schools, which will also involve broad improvements in energy efficiency at those buildings.

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are man-made chemicals that can still be found in many products and materials produced before a PCB ban was instituted in 1979. The toxic substances are known carcinogens, and other PCB health problems include increased blood pressure and negative affects to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. Most people have low levels of PCBs in their bodies, mostly from exposure through foods like fish and dairy products but also from air, indoor dust and outside soils.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which believes many schools built in the U.S. before 1979 have light ballasts containing PCBs, has been pushing New York City to act on the threat posed by the toxic substances. The agency’s own testing program in New York City has turned up PCBs leaking form light ballasts in every school inspected so far. Officials say the PCBs in New York City schools pose no immediate health risks, while at the same time, they caution that long-term exposure increases risks.

Despite the EPA pressure, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had initially balked at the cost of removing the PCB-tainted light fixtures, which according to The New York Times, was initially calculated at about $1 billion.

The newly announced PCB removal plan would involve replacement of light ballasts in all 772 New York City schools where they are located over the next 10 years. However, the 10 year timetable will be revisited in 2014 to see if it can be accelerated. Under the city’s plan, the first buildings to be addressed will be those with visually apparent leaks of PCBs. Then, according to the Times, remaining schools will be addressed in this sequence:

• elementary schools built between 1950 and 1966
• secondary schools built between 1950 and 1966
• elementary schools built between 1967 and 1979
• secondary schools built between 1967 and 1979
• elementary schools constructed before 1950
• secondary schools constructed before 1950.

In addition to the light ballast removal, all of the buildings will undergo an energy audit, the Times said, which could result in upgrades to improve energy efficiency. Such improvements could involve replacement of outdated No. 4 and No. 6 fuel oil boilers when necessary.

According to the Times, the city’s plan does not deal with PCBs contained in the caulk that was used around windows and doors in many buildings. Some contend that the presence of PCBs in caulk poses an even bigger health threat. For its part, the city is promising to address that issue that in the future

“This is a progressive plan to increase energy efficiency at our schools and simultaneously address the issue of PCBs in old light fixtures,” the city schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, said in a statement. “Given that both the EPA and the Department of Health have said there is no immediate health threat to students in these buildings, we believe this is the most responsible way to proceed.”

But others are not convinced the plan is the best way to rid New York City schools of PCBs.

“The work can be completed in two years if they decided to make it a priority,” one attorney who is representing parents in a PCB lawsuit against the city, told the Times. “There’s no reason to subject schoolchildren to PCBs contamination for an extra eight years.”

“It’s pretty clear that the mayor is kicking the can into the next administration,” the president of the United Federation of Teacher told the Times. “The idea that they are prioritizing boilers and energy efficiency — how about prioritizing the hazardous materials first? There’s a health hazard inside the buildings. That’s the priority right now.”

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