By Mary Frost
Parents at two Carroll Gardens schools say their request to the city to step up the pace of removing toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from their school building is getting the runaround.
Families at P.S. 146 Brooklyn New School and M.S. 448 Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies at 610 Henry Street learned at the beginning of the school year that their shared building could be contaminated, but they are far back in the list of hundreds of other schools in a cleanup process that may take 10 years.
Lighting ballasts and caulking installed between 1950 and 1978 contain the now-banned substance, which has been linked to cancer, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and immune disorders. A number of the fixtures have been leaking the toxic substance into classrooms, and advocates say that the leaks are not always visible from the ground.
Ilan Kayatsky, a Brooklyn New School dad, said the parents want PCB-containing light ballasts removed immediately — but the city has maintained that it will stick to its 10-year timeline. According to the New York City School Construction Authority the majority of the city’s schools — and 70 percent of schools in Brooklyn — contain PCBs.
Since the building contains both an elementary school and a middle school, “kids may be there 10 years before the building is remediated,” Kayatsky said. ”We don’t buy that there is no danger unless there is a visible leak from the lights. These decades-old ballasts have been known to volatilize and gas out regardless of visible leaks. Everyone may be exposed. And nothing’s been done.”
“We sent a letter and petition to the City demanding action on January 9th, and have not yet received a response,” said Kayatsky. Councilman Brad Lander also sent a letter about the issue to the city.
The Department of Education (DOE), however, emailed this paper a copy of a letter — dated January 17 and signed by Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm — in reply to the parents’ letter and petition. Kayatsky said no one at the schools had seen this letter. “I checked with my contact at DOE who said they would send me a copy, and they did not. And they did not send it to the address on the envelope or on the letter.” The letter forwarded to this paper was addressed to “Parents and Staff of P.S. 146 and M.S. 448.”
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry younger children may be particularly vulnerable to PCB’s because, compared to adults, they are growing more rapidly and have different metabolisms than adults, as well as much smaller fat depots where PCBs can be sequestered.
The effects of PCBs on the reproductive health of girls and female teachers is especially troubling, experts say, because the chemicals accumulate over time and can stay in the body for decades.
But the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has advised that “there is no immediate health concern and health effects from long term exposure to the air in school buildings are unlikely to occur at the PCB levels seen in the NYC schools.”
In the letter that DOE says was sent out to Brooklyn New School and Collaborative Studies, DOE quotes an interview conducted last year by the New York Times with two doctors from Mount Sinai School of Medicine: “PCBs at the levels found in most school in New York City today will not make any child or any teach acutely ill. In fact, compared with air levels reported in some other studies, air levels reported in NYC schools have been quite low.”
DOE ignores the rest of the article, however, which generally warns about the dangers of PCBs. For example, in another quote from the same article, one of the doctors said: “Fetal brain damage to babies in the womb is the most important human health effect of PCB exposure. Well-conducted, highly credible epidemiological studies demonstrate that babies born to mothers with elevated levels of PCBs in their bodies have diminished intelligence, as measured by decreased I.Q. scores. These effects on the fetal brain appear to be permanent and irreversible.”
Miranda K. Massie, director of litigation and training for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), told this paper last February, “Ten years is an absurdly long time frame, given the risks these lights pose to children’s health.”
‘Feels Like It’s a Big Secret’
Alexis Quy, another parent at the Brooklyn New School told the Eagle last week, “It’s really upsetting to drop my daughter off at school every day. It’s ludicrous to send children into a building that could potentially cause health effects.”
“It almost feels like it’s a big secret,” she said. “Someone give me some numbers that I can take to a doctor or environmental lawyer. I don’t have any information and I find this frustrating.
“It’s a fantastic school, but if the environment makes her sick in 10 years, I would forgo the education.
Ms. Quy said that 231 parents signed the petition.