Toxic Chemical Threatens Safety of Students, Teachers at NYC Public School

Filed under: In The News, Health


Dangerous chemicals were found inside a Staten Island school. Credit: Getty Images

Last night's snowstorm may not have closed down New York City public schools, but most of the kids at P.S. 36 in Staten Island will be kept home by their parents, anyway, while the Department of Education sorts out a toxic mess.

Last week, potentially dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a known carcinogenic chemical, were found inside the school as a result of leaking fluorescent light fixtures.

Banned in 1979 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PCBs are now listed in the top 10 percent of the EPA's most toxic chemicals. But, despite the ban, products made with PCBs still may be present in older buildings, typically in fluorescent lights and caulking.

Though the PCB situation at P.S. 36 came to light just last week, the teacher who reported it first noticed a drip from a light fixture more than a year and a half ago, Sam Pirozzolo, president of Community Education Council District 31, tells ParentDish.

However, it wasn't until the teacher recently read an article about PCBs that she made the connection to what she had seen at the school.

In response to concerns expressed last week by school officials, the DOE closed two classrooms at P.S. 36 for testing, though the school remains open.

While EPA safety guidelines for PCBs limit exposure to 50 parts per million (ppm) or less, Pirozzolo tells ParentDish a swipe test on the floor at P.S. 236 last week showed dangerously high levels, ranging from 1,000 to 12,000 ppm.

Yet, Dennis Walcott, the city's Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development, refused to close the school, saying he and the city health commissioner do not believe there is a health concern that warrants closure.

But, in a letter obtained from Pirozzolo, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck tells Walcott:

"EPA does not agree with your characterization of the potential health risks posed by PCB ballasts nor do we agree with your conclusion that there is no need for an expedited program to remove PCB containing lighting fixtures from schools."

Fearful of the effects of PCB exposure, a majority of parents still refuse to let their children return to the school, and attendance has dropped to about 25 percent since Jan. 10, Pirozzolo says.

"I'm going to keep (my daughter) out until the truant officer tells me I have to send her back to school or unless test results come back and say the school is safe to go in," parent Ellen Ambrose tells NY1 News.

To address the problem, the DOE sent a crew to the school over the weekend to inspect the fluorescent lamps, but the inspection turned out to be less than extensive, Pirozzolo says.

The situation escalated Jan. 10, when, during a meeting with Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, parents discovered PCB stains in the auditorium where the meeting was being held.

"If you would have looked for a definition of PCB stain in the dictionary, that would have been it, right there," Pirozzolo says.

In an unrelated incident, PCBs were recently discovered at another Staten Island school, P.S. 53, when it was randomly chosen by the EPA to be part of a pilot study checking for PCBs in a sample of New York public schools. As a result, eight classrooms have been closed.

Pirozzolo says Walcott refuses to close P.S. 36 because he's afraid of setting a precedent that could force closure of the city's more than 700 public schools.

In addition, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says it will cost $1 billion to remediate PCBs in all of the city's public schools -- a figure Pirozzolo says is vastly overstated, especially in light of subsidies available to the city from both federal and state sources.

In the meantime, with the help of New York City Council member Vincent Ignizio, who represents Staten Island, Pirozzolo says progress is being made at P.S. 36 -- and, apparently, citywide.

This morning, Pirozzolo tells ParentDish he received this news from Ignizio:

"The DOE made a directive that all schools shall be visually inspected by custodial staff and any and all that have signs of leakage shall be reported and replaced. ... This is a major citywide benefit that would have not happened but for all of our efforts."

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