The EPA and the speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn, have joined forces in calling for the replacement of public school light fixtures leaking PCBs. Back in March, the EPA rejected the Bloomberg administration’s 10-year removal plan, and now the agency is pushing for a five-year removal deadline. High levels of PCBs have been found leaking into multiple city schools, and parents and officials want the fixtures removed immediately. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were banned by Congress more than 30 years ago due to their high toxicity and adverse health effects, but they are still present in old lighting fixtures hanging in most of New York City’s schools.
The request for a speedier removal is the latest update in a months-long investigation of PCBs in New York’s schools. Concerns began mounting last fall when high levels of the toxic chemical were found leaking into P.S. 36 in Staten Island. Subsequent testing found PCBs in three more schools. After the highest possible levels of PCBs were found leaking into P.S. 306 in Brooklyn in March, the city announced a 10-year plan to replace all PCB-tainted light fixtures in 772 schools.
The city allocated $708 million in an effort to make the switch possible, while also promoting the plan as a way to make schools more energy efficient. Although definitely a step in the right direction, both parents and the EPA voiced concerns that the problem was not being treated with the proper level of urgency. Miranda K. Massie, director of litigation and training for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which is working with the parents on the issue said, “Work can be completed in two years if they decided to make it a priority.”
According to the New York Times, the five year plan was announced today before an oversight hearing by council committees on the city’s plans. Speaker Quinn released a statement saying, “We should err on the side of caution when addressing health matters pertaining to children in our schools.” Forty-one of the City Council’s 51 members have already sent a letter to the EPA’s regional director in New York, Judith Enck, insisting on a 2-year time frame instead.
The Department of Education is being more cautious in regards to the final plan. “Our plan to replace light fixtures in 772 buildings is unprecedented in the country,” Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said. “The time frame is aggressive based on what we currently know and we will revisit this as we learn more from actual projects.”
However, the issue of urgency remains clear. The EPA said that many light fixtures still in use are beyond the 10- to 15-year life expectancy of their ballasts, increasing the risk of leaks, ruptures and even fires. PCBs have been known to cause cancer, as well as cause problems to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.