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Staten Island Parents Demand DOE Test Classrooms After PCB Leak

By Nicholas Rizzi | January 23, 2013 9:37am

OAKWOOD — Parents demanded that the city test the air and surfaces in two P.S. 50 classrooms after PCB light fixtures ruptured and leaked smoke.

At a special meeting at the school on Tuesday night, parents asked the Department of Education to hire workers to test the classrooms for contaminants before children are allowed back inside.

“We want the facts,” said Paul Whalen, who’s son Peter Whalen, 8, was right under a light that ruptured. “We want an air quality test preformed in our classrooms. This is an unknown, an uncertainty.”

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm could not guarantee they would test the the classrooms.

She said during the meeting that because PCBs only leaked inside of the fixtures, and no oil dripped onto any classroom surfaces, the DOE does not test the air and surfaces for contaminants because they do not pose a health threat for students.

“When you don’t have any leaks of PCBs, they really are not posing a significant threat to anybody’s health, including your children,” she said.

PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, is a gas found in lighting. It has been linked to several health problems, including cancer.

Rose Marie Baldwin, who’s 8-year-old son was in one of the classrooms, said, “How are we going to be sure that there are no PCBs in the room without actually testing for the air quality?”

“How do we make sure that our children don’t have a continued health risk over the next six months since we don’t have the air quality testing?”

Grimm told parents that the classrooms were perfectly safe for children to go back in on Wednesday, but said she will not mandate the use of them.

The two light fixtures ruptured on Jan. 14 in a third-grade classroom.

“I looked up [and] it popped and then started sizzling,” said Peter Whalen. “As it was sizzling, it was smoking, white smoke.”

He has complained of headaches and blurred vision since the incident.

The DOE previously aimed to replace all of the PCB light fixtures in the school by the summer, but parents at the meeting complained that it was too long to wait.

Grimm said she would look into the possibility of speeding up the replacement of the fixtures.

A noxious odor was also present in the room a week prior to the rupture, due to overheating of a light ballast, officials said at the the meeting.

When a ballast overheats, city regulations state they must be removed, turned off and the room must be aired out overnight, said William Estelle, director of facilities for the DOE.

If a smell lingers the next day, children should not be allowed back in the classroom, Estelle said.

However, Whalen said his son’s class stayed in the classroom, and were told to bundle up as teachers opened the window to air out the classroom.

“They were left in the room with the windows open,” he said. “They weren't supposed to be left in the room. When they smell it, they're supposed to leave the room.”

A separate PCB light fixture rupture also happened in a different classroom on Jan. 7, and parents complained at the meeting they were not notified about either incident until they brought it up themselves at a PTA meeting.

The school did issue a letter on Jan. 17, which admits to two different PCB light failures over the two weeks, and claims the school followed the proper protocols in replacing the fixtures and airing out the classrooms.

At the meeting, Grimm said she would look into the length it took for parents to receive the notifications.