Recent study finds toxins in schools, causes alarm


BY Aline Reynolds

A recent study has revealed that thousands of public school children in New York City might be susceptible to dangerous chemicals. As many as 700 schools citywide could have a perilously high level of polychlorinated biphenyls, toxins that could cause cancer and immune disorders among teachers and youths, according to various medical sources.

The toxins were often used during the construction and renovation of school buildings between 1950 and 1978. Downtown schools constructed during that time frame include P.S. 2, P.S. 15, P.S. 20, P.S. 34, P.S. 124, P.S. 188, Murry Bergtraum and the Manhattan Charter School. In school buildings constructed prior to 1978, P.C.B.s were used in light ballasts, ventilation systems and caulking of school buildings built pre-1978. The toxic compound is found in transformers, cable insulation and electrical equipment. They were banned from manufacturing use by U.S. federal law in 1979.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler has formed a citywide coalition of elected officials, parents and other concerned community members to lobby for immediate action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the city’s Department of Education.

“We simply cannot wait idly by as our children are potentially being exposed to P.C.B.s in their schools every day,” said Nadler in a statement.

The coalition is demanding that citywide schools at risk be tested and, if necessary, have their lighting fixtures replaced and their ventilation systems cleaned out.

The city’s D.O.E. first identified the health hazard in 2008, when a group of concerned parents from the Jesse Isador Straus School (P.S. 199) on the Upper West Side discovered evidence of the chemicals in the infrastructure of the building. The D.O.E. and the E.P.A. proceeded to conduct a pilot program this year, formally testing the air in P.S. 199 and four other schools in each of the other boroughs. The three schools tested so far were found to contain the dangerous chemicals.

“Experts have said there is no immediate health threat, and we believe it would be irresponsible to move forward with a citywide plan, which potentially carries a billion dollar price tag before we have better information and complete this pilot project,” said D.O.E. press secretary Natalie Ravitz.

But according to various medical sources, exposure to high P.C.B. levels can cause a slew of health problems, including asthma and infectious respiratory diseases, attention deficit and other behavioral disorders, diabetes and heart disease, as well as childhood leukemia.

If airborne, the chemical can also tamper with hormonal balances in children that can stunt physical and mental development, according to Dr. Warren Licht, chief medical officer at Downtown Hospital.

“If the windowsills crack and peel, and the kids play with the caulking, then it leaks out of the substance and the molecules could become airborne,” he said. “If it’s sitting idle in a wall somewhere without being disturbed, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Nadler and several other elected officials wrote to E.P.A. regional administrator Judith Enck earlier this month, asking the agency to take chief responsibility of evaluating P.C.B. levels in N.Y.C. public schools.

The letter stated, “We are concerned that the D.O.E. has not yet taken action to begin testing and remediating other potentially affected schools for this serious health threat. Resolving this problem will require extensive testing and remediation across the city in a manner approved by the E.P.A. and using facilities and services approved by the E.P.A.”

Licht stressed that the testing should only be scientifically based.

Spokesperson Mary Mears said the E.P.A. is considering the coalition’s request to perform continued testing and research, but that the agency has not yet made a decision on moving forward.

“We certainly acknowledge there is an issue, but we don’t believe these [P.C.B.] levels pose a short-term risk,” said Mears.

Though none of the public schools in Downtown have been tested for P.C.B.s, some community members have caught wind of the news and are starting to spread the word.

“Parents are really concerned about the future of their children’s’ health,” said P.S. 34 parent ALord Allah, chairman of the District 1 Parent Advisory Council, who has been educating Lower East Side schools about the dangerous toxins. Allah has started a citywide petition for parents and teachers to request that their school be evaluated for P.C.B. levels, distributing handouts to around 20 L.E.S. schools so far. Allah plans to eventually send the petitions to the D.O.E. and E.P.A.

“It’s better to be safe than to be sorry down the line when you’ve found you could be exposed to a chemical,” he said.

But many other Lower Manhattan schools have not been alerted about the potential exposures to the chemical. Millennium High School Pincipal Robert Rhodes, whose building was constructed in 1929, said he hadn’t heard about the pilot study or of Nadler’s action plan.

“I wouldn’t really worry about that,” he said. “It’s a very old building, and it’s been retrofitted so many times.”

Principal Brett Gustafson of P.S. 2 said he was notified of the potential risk by his custodians a few months ago, but received no formal notice.

“As far as the way it was explained to me, it is not worrisome,” he said.