2011-05-20 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

DOE Delay Puts Children At Risk
By City Councilman Eric Ulrich

Thousands of our school children currently spend hours inside classrooms each day that contain harmful toxic chemicals called Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs. These PCBs, which have been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen, exist in paint, caulk and older light fixtures found in more than 700 public schools. While experts suggest that there is no immediate health risk from PCBs lingering in schools, one thing is certain: the longer the exposure, the higher the risk.

It boggles the mind that the Department of Education would drag its feet to remove these harmful substances from our classrooms. The city recently announced its plan of action, one that could take ten years to remedy the situation. That is simply unacceptable, especially when it can and should be completed in much less time. We cannot afford to wait a decade to rid our schools of these dangerous toxins.

The situation originally came to light after several teachers on Staten Island informed their union representative that an oily substance was dripping from light fixtures in their classrooms. Subsequent testing showed that samples taken from the school had PCB concentrations well above the EPA regulatory limit.

Additional testing conducted as of February 19, 2011 revealed elevated levels of PCBs in all 10 of the schools tested by the EPA, including results above 100,000 parts per million in three buildings.

After months of pressure from parents and elected officials, the city finally responded this past February with its “Comprehensive Plan to Increase Energy Efficiency and Environmental Quality at School.” Among the initiatives in the $702 million plan is the removal and replacement of all PCB lighting ballasts in 772 schools. While this sounds like a good idea, it is as effective as putting a band aid on a gushing wound.

At a recent City Council Education Committee hearing, the EPA testified, “We have been consistent in saying that ten years is too long for the removal of all PCB-containing lighting fixtures throughout the school system. EPA believes that the lighting fixtures should be removed from these 772 schools in no longer than five years – and that the city can and should take steps to achieve this.”

The city complains that the EPA is “severely underestimating the complexity of performing work of this type in school buildings.” Still, when the federal agency in charge of ensuring the safety of our environment says the work can and should be done sooner, I have to agree. One cannot place a price tag on the safety and well-being of our children and teachers. We have an obligation to provide them with a safe, clean and toxic-free environment, no matter what the cost may be.

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