Suffering Staten Island school brings PCBs to spotlight
STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 5/16/2013, 5:02 p.m.
As its profile increases, the New York City Board of Education has to deal with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in public schools whether they like it or not.
Last week, a student at P.S. 41 on Staten Island had a PCB ballast leak directly onto her. Once her teacher noticed, she alerted the authorities who, after checking all of the light fixtures in the classroom, found that six of the nine light ballasts in the classroom were leaking. The Department of Education said that the school would move to the top of its "fast track" list and replace every PCB ballast in the school.
"Those of us who have been working on this for a number of years, we are not surprised at all," said New York Lawyers of the Public Interest (NYLPI) staff attorney Christina Giorgio. "We have been ringing the alarm, saying that these lights are years past their life span. The issue is that the majority of the leaks are hidden because they're in metal plates. Leaking was so bad [in Staten Island] that it oozed past the metal plates."
Attempts to contact the DOE for comment were unsuccessful, but the city's law department told the AmNews earlier this month that they now anticipate filing objections to the report and recommendations. A department spokesperson also told the AmNews that even if the city loses the motion to dismiss, "the case is still ongoing. It will proceed to the discovery phrase."
According to NYLPI, PCBs are linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and attention deficit disorders.
Pamela Lein, a developmental neurobiologist and professor of molecular biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told the AmNews in a statement, "Impaired neuronal connectivity is a common feature of a number of conditions, including autism spectrum disorders. Dendrite growth and branching during early development is a finely orchestrated process, and the presence of certain PCBs confuses the conductor of that process."
PCBs have been an issue for those in the know for the past several years. Last year, NYLPI filed a lawsuit on behalf of New York Communities for Change (NYCC) against the DOE and New York City School Construction Authority (SCA), alleging that thousands of light fixtures across hundreds of city schools were leaking with PCBs in violation of federal law. The lawsuit also stated that it endangers the health of schoolchildren and school staff. Testing of lighting in schools conducted by the DOE found visible leaks, but the DOE and SCA said that they have no plans to remove these lights in less than 10 years.
But according to Giorgio, the timeline depends on where you live. There were reports of another light fixture leaking PCBs at I.S. 204 in Queens. Giorgio believes there's a reason why the school in Staten Island is being addressed more quickly.
"At P.S. 41, the DOE initially told parents that they'd address the issue and keep people on the same protocol and have a school-wide replacement in about one year. The parents in Staten Island had the wherewithal to threaten to boycott the school for them to finally work on their school. At I.S. 204, the DOE is telling parents that they're replacing the light, on the same time line, as if nothing alarming has happened there ... but there's no opposition to deliver a boycott threat because they're in a different socioeconomic bracket."
According to Giorgio, the school in Staten Island has more kids from families with stay-at-home parents who can afford to keep fighting. I.S. 204 is located in Long Island City.
"It highlights why the city needs to take a uniform policy of replacing all of these lights on a citywide basis," Giorgio said. "It's simply a matter of time until another student is leaked upon."
But a spokesperson for the DOE said that they are exercising a uniform policy when it comes to light fixtures and called Giorgio's socio economic stance off base.
"We strongly disagree with their comment," the spokesperson said. "At both schools, the affected light fixtures were removed immediately after we verified that the leaks likely contained PCBs and the rooms were cleaned pursuant to EPA protocols. We have completed 83 building-wide replacement projects across the city covering schools in widely differing socioeconomic neighborhoods."
The DOE also noted that fixing the lights at P.S. 41 were already in the works, and the leak at the office in I.S. 204 was the only "confirmed leak" they found in the school.