Here’s some good news for the city’s children: A multi-year effort to replace crumbling lighting fixtures containing toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in hundreds of public schools — many in Brooklyn — has been almost 100 percent accomplished.
Lighting ballasts and caulking installed between 1950 and 1978 contained the now-banned PCBs. The substance has been linked to cancer, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and immune disorders.
Yet thousands of the old fixtures remained, crumbling and dripping, in the city’s classrooms.
The removal of the PCB-containing fixtures is “extremely important,” Rachel Spector, director of the Environmental Justice Program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday.
“It’s an important accomplishment which removes the most acute source of PCBs. Children were having light fixtures leaking PCBs onto their desks,” she said.
Spector added that the replacement of the old units with new, high-efficiency fixtures also helps the city “achieve their goal of sustainability.”
Bloomberg administration downplayed threat
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the city learned that PCBs were leaking from the fixtures when the EPA investigated PCB-containing caulk used to seal windows in schools.
As the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 2011, the EPA found PCBs actively leaking in 93 percent of examined New York City schools, with about half of the contaminated schools in Brooklyn. Among these were P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights; P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights; P.S. 15 in Red Hook; Arts & Letters in Fort Greene; P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill; P.S. 146 in Carroll Gardens; I.S. 98 Bay Academy in Bay Ridge; M.S. 51 in Park Slope; and the Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies.
The Bloomberg administration, however, downplayed the health threat to children from the PCBs, and set a 10-year timeline to remove the fixtures. Parents and elected officials became increasingly concerned after the city, in some cases, refused to admit that fixtures were dripping the toxic brew.
In a series of articles on this topic from 2011 through 2013, this newspaper publicized the worries of parents, including those at Brooklyn’s P.S. 146 Brooklyn New School and M.S. 448 Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies. At these schools, families were told by the city that their lighting fixtures contained no visible leaks — even after parents submitted photos of clearly-dripping fixtures.
After an outcry by NY Communities for Change, NYLPI, state Sen. Daniel Squadron, Councilmember Brad Lander, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, then-District Leader Jo Anne Simon — and publication of the photos in this paper — the Department of Education (DOE) conducted another walkthrough and pushed these schools to the top of the priority list.
City forced to shorten timeline after lawsuit
NYLPI and the law firm White & Case brought a lawsuit against the city in 2011, representing the New York Communities for Change, a coalition of low and middle-income families. The city filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In March 2013, however, a federal judge ruled against the city’s motion, criticizing the city’s "foot-dragging.”
In a settlement, the city agreed to cut in half its 10-year timeline. The settlement required the city to remove all PCB lighting fixtures by the end of 2016, a goal that has been essentially met.
“We’re still in the process of working with the city to make sure they’ve taken care of all the work,” Spector said. Some residue from the leaking fixtures still remains, she said, and that needs to be cleaned up.
“A number of schools have been newly identified as having some residue. I’m confidant they’re going to do it,” Spector said.
PCBs also remain in the window caulking of more than 700 schools, Spector cautioned.
“We still don’t fully know how widespread the existence of PCBs are and whether children and teachers are being exposed to dangerous levels,” she said. “The EPA and the city are working on a long-term plan — but they’re not going to remove all the caulking. We are calling on the city to take the most protective approach.”
Since PCBs travel through the air from caulk in a process known as off-gassing, NYLPI is pushing for air testing and the provision of proper ventilation in schools.
While NYLPI and the EPA have praised the city for following through with its aggressive cleanup, Spector points out that it took a lawsuit to make the city do the right thing.
“Without the lawsuit we filed, I don’t believe we would be anywhere near this point,” she said.