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Parents Want More Action to Remove Toxins from Schools

By Leslie Albrecht | October 27, 2011 7:05am
Toxins called PCBs were discovered inside P.S. 199 in 2008.
Toxins called PCBs were discovered inside P.S. 199 in 2008.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Efforts to remove toxic PCB chemicals from an Upper West Side school have failed, and parents are calling for a renewed push to clean up the potentially life-threatening hazard, which could be lurking in hundreds of schools citywide.

Parents are hoping to get the ball rolling at a Community Board 7 committee meeting Thursday night where an attorney will describe the health risks linked to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a group of chemicals associated with cancer and developmental problems.

The poisonous PCBs were discovered at P.S. 199 on West 70th Street between West End and Amsterdam avenues in 2008. The school is now one of five schools in a citywide pilot program aimed at pinpointing the source of the toxins and how to get rid of them.

The city Department of Education and School Construction Authority removed P.S. 199's lighting fixtures and caulking — thought to be a source of PCBs — but a new round of testing conducted this summer showed PCB levels remain elevated at the school.

"The results came back a lot higher than anyone would have expected, and that’s created a new sense of urgency," said P.S. 199 parent and Community Board 7 member Eric Shuffler.

In September, P.S. 199's PTA wrote to the DOE demanding more testing to find the source of the PCBs. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, State Sen. Tom Duane, U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Borough President Scott Stringer joined the call for more action.

The DOE responded that PCB levels at P.S. 199 had "decreased dramatically" after DOE installed charcoal air filters in classrooms. The DOE said it plans to conduct further testing for PCBs this school year, but those tests won't be as extensive as parents wanted.

The PTA had requested monthly testing; the DOE said it could conduct tests each season.

"We are also working with the EPA to identify and remediate possible PCB sources other than interior caulk and older flourescent lighting fixtures that have already been removed," wrote Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm in an Oct. 18 letter to the elected officials.

Community Board 7's Youth, Education and Libraries committee is hosting two meetings to raise awareness about PCBs. The first, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday night, will feature a New York Lawyers for the Public Interest attorney discussing the health risks associated with PCBs and methods to remove the toxic chemicals.

In November, Community Board 7 is hoping to host officials from the city's School Construction Authority to discuss PCB clean-up, said Community Board 7 chair Mark Diller.

Shuffler and Diller said they want to spark awareness citywide about PCBs, which were widely used in building materials from the 1950s to the 1970s.

"There are dozens if not hundreds of schools out there that may or may not have PCB issues like P.S. 199," Shuffler said. "There’s a growing sense among parents that we need answers and we need them sooner rather than later."