2011-01-14 / Top Stories

Feds Begin Checking School Light Fixtures

By Howard Schwach

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has quietly begun checking school buildings in Rockaway that were built prior to the mid-1970s, for light fixtures that are leaking dangerous PCBs, a source told The Wave this week. The federal inspections come in the wake of an investigation that found the toxins in the light fixtures in older school buildings.

Earlier this week, school officials closed ten classrooms in two Staten Island elementary schools as they await test results to see if the children and staff in those schools have been exposed to PCB-contaminated air, officials said.

While the EPA has declined to provide of list of those Rockaway schools that will be checked this month, a number of local buildings were built prior to 1978, when the PCBs were outlawed.

Those schools include PS 42 in Arverne, IS 53 in Far Rockaway, PS 104 in Bayswater, PS 114 in Belle Harbor, PS 106 in Edgemere and PS 215 in Wavecrest.

The feds decision to check the schools for toxins follows an exchange of letters, described by some experts as “contentious,” between the federal agency and city officials that show the two sides disagreeing over the urgency of addressing a problem that the city says could affect 750 to 850 of about 1,200 school buildings and cost about $1 billion if all the old fluorescent fixtures throughout the school system were to be replaced.

Bloomberg administration officials told the feds in a letter that the contamination does not pose an immediate health risk to students and that they prefer to finish the pilot study, which the city is conducting, before coming up with a broad plan.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Education Department told The Wave two weeks ago that it was trying to find a solution that would not “impose a $1 billion unfunded mandate on city taxpayers.”

She compared that sum with the cost of employing about 15,000 teachers.

Elevated levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were found last summer in the first three school buildings tested in the pilot study, including Beach Channel High School in Rockaway, and light fixtures were replaced at all three, according to DOE sources.

Two more schools, neither of them in Rockaway, remain to be tested next summer in that study. The DOE says that it will draw a plan of action after that study is completed.

The Environmental Protection Agency, however, is not buying the city’s plan for an extended study.

Saying that long-term exposure to PCBs was “cause for considerable concern,” Judith Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator for New York, told city officials earlier this month in a letter that the federal agency itself would inspect schools for PCB leaks in light fixtures during 2011.

“The protection of public health dictates that measures be taken to reduce this exposure as quickly and completely as reasonably possible,” she said.

PCBs are highly toxic chemical compounds that were widely used in construction materials and electrical products in many buildings from the 1950s until they were phased out starting in 1978. Long-term exposure to the chemicals can cause cancer and affect the immune and reproductive systems.

Dennis M. Walcott, deputy mayor for education and community development, told the EPA in a letter last month that the city wanted to complete testing under the pilot program and then develop a citywide plan to manage the issue as “the most prudent course of action.”

Federal officials said they were particularly concerned about the levels of contamination leaking from aging ballasts, leading to “peak levels of airborne PCBs.”

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