On Sept. 10, with the school year only a few days old, a custodian at IS 204 in Long Island City walked into a counselor’s office, looked up and noticed something frightening — a clear liquid dripping from an overhead light fixture. He immediately alerted school officials. The light was removed and replaced that same day.
But it was three days later that parents found out about the incident — the escape of toxic chemeicals called PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls — when letters went home with students stating that the dripping liquid was the chemical that was commonly used in fluorescent lighting in the mid-20th century, and the school’s lightnng would be completely replaced over the next nine years. Many parents expressed concern about the risk to their children and some kept their kids out of the school. The Department of Education said the room was empty when the leak was discovered and a full review of the lights in the building is being done.
“We are conducting an evaluation of the fixtures in the building,” the DOE said in a statement referring to the IS 204 incident. “We already have removed the fixture in the counselor’s office and have cordoned off the room. No one was in the room at the time.”
The incident in Long Island City was the second citywide concerning PCBs, this school year, which is less than a month old. On the first day of school, PCBs leaked onto a Staten Island fifth-grader.
The two incidents served as a reminder of the problem of PCBs. They were banned in 1978, but many of the city’s schools built between 1950 and 1978 have PCBs in their lighting. In February 2011, the DOE embarked on a decade-long project to replace all light fixtures in the over 700 city school buildings that have PCBs, including 36 in Queens, one of them being IS 204.
Though the DOE says its 10-year, $100 million project is unprecedented and much more ambitious than other cities with PCB problems, some elected officials, parents and union leaders are calling for that timeline to be sped up.
“What has taken place [at IS 204] is unacceptable anytime, anyplace,” said city Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) at a press conference outside the school Tuesday. “No one in their right mind would wait 10 years [if it was their child].”
Outraged parents agreed the 10-year timeframe was unacceptable.
“New York City works faster on other issues, why not this one?” asked Brenda Maldonado, parent of a student at IS 204.
“We need to light a fire under the city,” said another IS 204 parent, Nancy Nieza. “I don’t need to worry about my child while in school. It should be a safe place.”
Unions representing teachers and staff also called on the city to expedite the remediation of lights with PCBs.
“Our schools are struggling to try to maintain an environment where our children can learn,” said Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of 32BJ, the union that represents 5,000 school cleaners and maintenance staff. The union says budget cuts are responsible for cutting staff that attend to PCB problems and notes it was a janitor who discovered the problem at IS 204.
Christina Giorgio, a representative from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said once a leak happens, the situation is already dangerous.
“Once a light ballast is compromised, the air around it is contaminated,” Giorgio said.
Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood), who chairs the Education Committee in the state Assembly, said Albany has pushed the DOE for a faster timeframe and promised to continue doing so. She also asked the local school districts to form working groups that would focus on the issue and which school buildings are at most risk.
It is only the second year of the 10-year project to replace the lights and IS 204 has not yet been scheduled for work. But the discovery of the leak at the school appears to have moved it up the list. Van Bramer said the DOE informed him that the school’s lighting would be completely replaced “within a week.” The DOE said schools where PCBs were found leaking are given a higher priority than schools that may have PCBs but none that were seen leaking.
In the borough, three schools are currently in the “design” stage of light replacement — JHS 8 in Jamaica, PS 18 in Queens Village and PS 219 in Flushing, while two other schools are in the process of having energy audits done by energy service companies procured by the DOE. They are PS 60 in Woodhaven and JHS 194 in Whitestone.
In the meantime, the DOE replaces problem fixtures within 48 hours after a leak is found. The department also conducts reviews of the sources of some leaks and notes that in a number of cases, reported PCB leaks are actually discovered to be water from a leaky pipe or ceiling.
PCBs: the risk and effects
PCBs have been linked to a number of health problems including cancer, heart disease, liver diseases and asthma. The chemicals have also been linked to increased sensitivity to allergies and issues with cognitive functions such as learning and memory.
But in 2007, Dr. Maida Galvez, associate professor of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine told The New York Times:
“PCBs at the levels found in schools in New York City today will not make any child or any teacher acutely ill. There is no need for panic. There is time to measure, evaluate and take appropriately focused, intelligent preventive action. But there is also no excuse for delay in taking action. The goal is to keep environmental exposures low to minimize risk.”
Galvez did say most at risk were pregnant women, including teachers and staff who may be carrying a child. The unborn baby exposed to PCBs could be at risk of autism and other developmental problems.