The specter of PCBs in New York City schools has many parents worried. Over the past several months, the toxic chemicals have turned up in the ballasts of light fixtures at several public schools around the city, and many parents have complained that the official response to the PCB contamination has been inadequate.
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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes many schools built in the U.S. before 1979 have light ballasts containing PCBs. A pilot testing program conducted by the EPA revealed levels of PCB contamination in some New York City schools that exceed federal health guidelines. According to The New York Times, the EPA was so concerned that it told the Bloomberg Administration that further tests could not wait until summer 2011 and began its own spot inspections last month.
While parents are understandably concerned, the Times said the Bloomberg administration has disputed the urgency of replacing all of the fluorescent lighting, estimating it would cost about $1 billion, and it is still in negotiations with the EPA over the matter. Adding to the confusion is the mixed message parents are receiving: Officials say the PCBs pose no immediate health risks, while at the same time, they caution that long-term exposure increases risks.
“Everything is so obscure, Richard Ghiraldi, whose son is in the 3rd Grade at P.S. 36, one of the schools where PCBs have turned up”, told the Times. “I do worry that it may have some impact on him in the future a cancer, some kind of illness.”
So where have the PCBs turned up so far? According to the Times, the EPA testing of light fixtures (but not samples of indoor air) have revealed PCB levels above federal regulatory limits in all three buildings tested: P.S. 11 in Brooklyn; P.S. 53 on Staten Island and a building housing both P.S. 13 and P.S. 358 in Brooklyn.
PCBs were found at P.S. 36 after a teacher’s discovery of a brown stain under a light fixture prompted the city to conduct tests there. Testing financed by two public interest groups also found high levels of PCBs in caulk at P.S. 56 in Brooklyn, the Times said.
According to the Times, the PCB problem is not limited to New York City schools. The toxic chemicals have also been detected in school districts in Massachusetts, North Dakota and Oregon. But so far the EPA has conducted spot inspections only in New York, the country’s largest school system.