Today, on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., together with Deputy Bronx Borough President Aurelia Greene, City Council Member Annabel Palma, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a number of parents and community activists, called on the New York City Department of Education to begin testing older public school buildings for the presence of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxic chemical that can cause developmental disabilities in children.
Borough President Diaz also released a copy of a letter he wrote to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, calling on the agency to compel the DOE to remove PCB contamination from school buildings. The borough president also expressed support for House Bill 2187, which would provide federal funding for such removal, and legislation in Albany (A.7556 and S.4442) that would require the City to test for and report on the presence of PCBs in public schools.
“Our children deserve a safe place to learn. It is unfair that they are exposed to toxic chemicals in their classrooms. If this was asbestos, the Department of Education would not be dragging their feet on testing. While such testing is expensive, we cannot put a price on the health of our children. Testing needs to begin right now,” said Borough President Diaz.
PCBs have long been known to be severely toxic, and were banned for use by Congress in 1978. Experts have noted that PCBs are damaging to the brain, the immune system, the hormonal system, and can cause cancer. PCBs continue to pose health risks despite the ban, as they persist in the environment rather than break down. It is estimated that most schools built before 1980 might be contaminated with PCBs.
“Given the numerous health problems Bronx children already face, including some of the highest asthma rates in the nation, it is wrong for the Department of Education to burden parents with another worry,” said Deputy Borough President Greene, who was a co-sponsor of A.7556 while she served in the New York State Assembly. “This legislation was important to me when I served in the Assembly, and it is just as important to me now. I am calling on the State Legislature to act and demand that the DOE do the right thing by our children by passing this bill.”
Beyond the legislative options, litigation designed to clean PCBs from City public schools is also in the works. Naomi Gonzalez, a Bronx mother represented by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, has filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Department of Education over PCBs at the school her two children attend. The caulk at the school, P.S. 178 in Co-op City, contains more than 2,000 times EPA limits for PCBs. Parents at other schools where the caulk has tested positive for PCBs, as well as the community organization Nos Quedamos, have decided to join Ms. Gonzalez and will file another notice soon.
“The Department of Education must provide a safe learning environment for the children of this City,” said Miranda Massie, senior staff attorney for the Environmental Justice group at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “Action is needed now to address the serious risks posed by PCB-contaminated caulk.”
“Despite pressure from parents and elected officials, the Department of Education has still not made public any plans to test and clean-up PCB-contaminated caulk,” said Anna Vincenty from Nos Quedamos, a Bronx-based grass roots community organization. “Parents in our community have a right to know that their kids are safe.”
“PCB exposure, whether it is by inhalation of vapor phase PCBs or ingestion of PCB contaminated foods, causes an irreversible loss of cognitive function and also results in increased symptoms of hyperactivity, decreased general performance and decreased ability to deal with frustration,” said David O. Carpenter, M.D, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany. “These symptoms constitute what we know as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”
Last spring the Daily News conducted testing on caulk samples taken from New York City public schools. The caulk at six of nine schools contained more than 50 parts per million PCBs, in clear violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has determined that PCBs at such levels categorically “present an unreasonable risk of injury to health,” (40 CFR §761.20).