New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) joined with elected officials, women’s reproductive health organizations, parents and community activists fighting to protect women and girls from polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) exposure in New York City schools.

NYLPI spearheaded a campaign three years ago to rid New York City public schools of PCBs. PCBs are highly toxic chemical compounds widely used in construction materials and electrical products. These chemicals, found in many buildings including schools since the 1950s, were phased out in 1978.

In 2009, NYLPI filed a lawsuit when contaminants were discovered in the chalk used in a Bronx school. In January 2010, the suit was placed on hold when the city agreed to conduct a pilot study of three schools and develop a citywide plan to address the problem of PCB contamination. Test results showed dangerously elevated levels of these toxins.

At the start of this school year, P.S. 51 in the Bronx was moved because levels of a chemical known as TCE (trichloroethylene) were above the New York State Air Guideline. “These chemicals pose serious risks to the nervous and immune systems of children, as well as brain development,” NYLPI attorney Dawn Phillip noted.

This fall, NYLPI and their coalition partners launched a “Right to Know” campaign that demanded increased transparency from the Department of Education (DOE) on school contamination issues.

“You are looking at over 800 schools, teachers, employees and children. We feel that it is important that the DOE remove these PCBs from schools as soon as possible.” The city responded to the lawsuit with a 10-year timeline. In late February 2011, the city announced that it would spend $708 million to replace light fixtures containing PCBs in city school buildings over the next decade.

“We think that this is totally unacceptable,” said Phillip. “That would put women and children at risk. We are calling for a two-year timeline.” Phillip promised that pressure would remain on the DOE until all harmful toxins are removed from city schools.

A letter signed by 41 New York City Council members strongly urged the Environmental Protection Agency to reject New York City’s 10-year timeframe to remove and replace all light fixtures containing PCBs and insisted on a strict two-year plan.

Last week, the DOE issued the following statement: “Our plan to replace light fixtures in more than 700 school buildings is unprecedented compared to other cities and PCBs are a nationwide issue. While some people think we should spend more and do this faster, we continue to believe ours is an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimal disruption to student learning and generate significant energy savings for the city and taxpayers in the long run.”