NYC Will Replace All School Lighting Fixtures Tainted by PCBs Over the Next Ten Years

by , 03/01/11
filed under: News
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Photo credit: James Barnsley

Since the beginning of the year, the EPA has tested the lighting fixtures in nine New York City schools for PCBs — and all nine tests showed elevated levels of the toxic chemical. After months of dragging their feet, city officials announced yesterday that they will replace all of the outdated fixtures containing PCBs in 772 schools over the next ten years. The city has allocated $708 million of the capital budget to make the switch possible, which is also being billed as an effort to make schools more energy-efficient. The removal is a step in the right direction, but many believe that the plan does not solve the problem fast enough.

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Old light fixtures like these can leak PCBs in NYC schools (Image © Andrew via Creative Commons)

Concerns about PCBs leaking into schools began last fall when the EPA found the chemicals in three elementary schools, but anxiety continued to mount as more testing revealed more PCBs. At the most recently tested school, P.S. 45 in Brooklyn, all 19 samples showed levels up to 670,000 parts per million — far above the federal limit of 50 parts per million and the highest level yet found in a school.

Perhaps the number kicked the city into gear because up until this point, Mayor Bloomberg maintained that it was unreasonable for the city to replace the ballasts in every school. During a hearing in January with the EPA, parents, and the city health department, Bloomberg said “The bottom line is it’s not practical nor do we think it’s necessary to go and redo every single building the city has. It would be all the public housing, it would be all the schools, it would be most private buildings – maybe small houses probably don’t – but any sizable building that was built during 20 or 30 years when this was one of the basic building materials. As long as you don’t touch it, it’s fine.”

They initially thought it would cost about $1 billion to replace all contaminated fixtures, and they were only replacing ballasts that came back positive after testing. The actual amount allocated will also provide for energy audits of the schools, which will result in the replacement of boilers using No. 4 and No. 6. oils. The high-polluting oils were banned last month.

While the plan is definitely a step in the right direction, parents, city politicians, and environmental advocates immediately criticized the 10-year timeline saying that the issue is too urgent. “Continued exposure to toxic PCBs will continue to place our children, teachers and school staff at risk,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler. “We cannot ignore the urgency of this very real and growing public health problem, and the city must act quickly to remove these dangerous chemicals from our schools.”

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are man-made chemicals that were used in a wide variety of industrial applications until 1979 when they were banned because of their high toxicity. Despite being banned more than 30 years ago, the chemicals are still in the paint, caulk, and lighting fixtures of older buildings. PCBs do not pose an immediate risk, but longer exposure increases the likelihood of PCB related health problems, which range from rashes to lower I.Q. levels to cancer.

Miranda K. Massie, director of litigation and training for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which has been working with parents on the PCB issue, told the New York Times that the work could be done quicker. “The work can be completed in two years if they decided to make it a priority,” said Massie. “There’s no reason to subject schoolchildren to PCBs contamination for an extra eight years.”

City officials said the plan will be revisited in 2014 to see if they can speed up the process.

Via The New York Times