Toxic PCBs Leaking into NYC Schools

by , 01/24/11
filed under: News
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Image © Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Not long after the holiday break, a Staten Island mother received a shocking letter from her children’s school: PCBs had been found on the floor tiles. The culprit was a leaking light fixture. Tests at PS 36 confirmed that the air was safe, but that was after the fixtures in the two affected classrooms had already been removed. 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. The discovery at PS 36 adds to the mounting concern about PCBs in New York City schools; last year, the city found the toxic chemicals leaking from lights in three other elementary schools.

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

Despite being banned more than 30 years ago, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are still in the paint, caulk, and lighting fixtures of older buildings. Due to concerns about caulk, the EPA ordered the city to test five elementary schools last year. The results showed that the largest source of PCBs to be the lighting fixtures, not caulk. In the rooms with the older lighting ballasts, the air came back several levels higher than the EPA’s acceptable PCB limit. While that seems very dangerous, an EPA toxicologist told WNYC that the agency’s limits are “extremely conservative,” and based on industrial workers who had longterm exposure.

However, the EPA could not give 100 percent assurance that the levels found in the schools would not be harmful, which is why the agency ordered the city to remove older light fixtures from schools. PCBs have been linked to health problems ranging from rashes to cancer.

The leaking fixtures in PS 36 have been removed, and the rest are being inspected. Custodians in all of the city’s school have been ordered to inspect for PCB leaks, which show up as brown and yellowish stains. Most say that a more effective solution is to dismantle and replace every old light fixture, but Mayor Bloomberg and the city continue to reject this idea, citing the cost and downplaying the dangers.

During a hearing last week 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.”

New York is not alone in this problem. In December, the EPA issued guidelines to schools nationwide advising them to remove old fixtures because they’re prone to leak PCBs. So far, the EPA has also worked with schools in Oregon, North Dakota, and Massachusetts to eradicate the problem.

To get a scope of the problem in New York City, the EPA is spot testing city schools on the weekend. New York’s regional EPA administrator Judith Enck said that the city is making progress on long-term plans to removed the fixtures. She admits that replacement costs would be high, but new, energy-efficient lighting would save schools money in the long run. However, the schools need to come up with the financing themselves — an obstacle all too-familiar for New York City’s schools.


The toxins in 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. The leaking lights pose a serious public health concern for New York City school children, making it imperative that all old or faulty fixtures be replaced.