At the end of the 2010-2011 school year, Michelle Chapman's 10-year-old daughter started complaining about headaches and fatigue. Her symptoms stopped during the summer, only to return when school started again in the fall. Doctors didn't know what made the girl sick, but Chapman thinks she does: the fluorescent light fixtures at her daughter's school, which are contaminated with sky-high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), one of the most toxic chemicals ever made by man. Long-term exposure can damage a child's ability to learn and a woman's ability to bear healthy babies.
In New York City, 754 schools have fluorescent lights that are likely tainted with PCBs, according to the city's School Construction Authority. The substance may be leaking into the air and building up in the bodies of teachers and children. At first, city officials denied there was a health risk. Now they acknowledge that there is one, but say it will take ten years to remove all the potentially toxic lights.
"It's so scary," says Chapman. "My daughter is 10. When she's in her child-bearing years she's going to have PCBs in her system. It seems like they're choosing policy over our lives."
The Environmental Protectional Agency has recommended all of the old lights be replaced in a maximum of five years, as has New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said the timeframe for replacement should be two to five years. A year ago, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit civil rights firm that has worked closely with advocates to remove PCBs from schools, said it should be two years.
Parents, women's health activists, environmentalists and lawyers have been holding rallies to pressure Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to act faster. On Monday, more than a dozen elected officials gathered together with other concerned parties on the steps of City Hall. "ABCs not PCBs," they chanted, when Bloomberg made a surprise -- and brief -- appearance.
"Our plan to replace light fixtures in nearly 800 school buildings is unprecedented compared to other cities, and PCBs are a nationwide issue,” Natalie Ravitz, director of communications for the NYC Department of Education, told The Huffington Post via email.
Miranda Massie, the legal director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said in response, "The fact that children are being poisoned elsewhere is not a morally attractive argument."
AS BIG AS LEAD OR ASBESTOS
The problem of PCBs in schools isn't limited to New York City, but advocates there have been the most aggressive about it. The chemicals were a popular component of construction materials and electrical products made from the 1950s to 1977, when they were banned and labeled as probable carcinogens. Schools that were renovated during the period PCBs were being used likely have caulk on windows and doorframes, and ballasts, electrical devices commonly found in fluorescent lights, that contain PCBs.
In the last few years, new research has come out that links PCBs to a host of reproductive health problems. Prenatal exposure to PCBs has been found to increase a baby's susceptibility to low birth weight, stunted growth, asthma, immune weakness, Attention Deficit Disorder and memory problems. A 2008 study of 156 nine-year-olds found that in utero exposure to PCBs significantly decreased a child's IQ.
"It seems like every week a new study comes out that makes the hair on your back stand up," says Massie.
The dangers of ingesting PCBs, specifically through fish, have been known for a long time. But the risks of being exposed to PCBs through air were discovered relatively recently. The fact that outdated construction in schools is endangering children gives the issue an especially tragic twist, experts say.
"You're exposing your kids to a chemical that affects their ability to learn," says David Carpenter, director of the SUNY Albany Institute for Health and the Environment, who has published dozens of studies on PCBs. "They're a little less bright, a little less attentive, a little more frustrated and angry."
The news of PCBs in schools broke quietly in the U.S. In 2004, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found PCBs in the caulk that frames windows and doors in Boston-area schools. A father in upstate New York happened upon the research, and had some scraps of caulk at his son's school tested. The PCB levels in the sample were 350 times over the federal limit of 50 parts per million. That led to the first PCB school cleanup in the country.
In 2008, the New York Daily News decided to investigate whether PCBs could be a problem in New York City too. A reporter took caulk samples from nine schools, and lab tests found unacceptably high levels of PCBs in six of them.
After campaigning for over a year to get the city to test schools officially, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest sued in September of 2009. The city and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to conduct a pilot study of five schools. It was the first official PCB investigation in any school system in the U.S.
The first three schools tested in summer 2010 showed dangerously high levels of PCBs. Although the inspectors were originally just looking at caulk, they discovered an unexpected culprit in an old model of lighting, known as T12 fluorescent lamps. Advocates were surprised to learn that as many as 564,000 of these fixtures -- the first ever form of fluorescent lighting technology -- were still hanging, aging, and possibly leaking over their children's heads.
"The anticipated shelf-life of these fixtures is way past due," says Massie. "They're antiques."
An EPA spokeswoman said the results were an "immediate cause for alarm," and that the lighting fixtures should be removed on an "expedited timeframe." The agency issued new recommendations last December, urging all schools to replace old PCB-leaking lights immediately.
This led to a stand-off between the EPA and the city. Then Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott, now the city's schools chancellor asked the EPA to reconsider its conclusion, writing in a letter that the "theoretical risk of health impacts is too low" to justify what would be a $1 billion undertaking with "dire consequences" for the city's schools.
"EPA does not agree with your characterization of the potential health risks," replied Judith Enck, the EPA's regional administrator. With regards to the $1 billion estimate, she wrote: "We have no understanding of how this figure was arrived at."
Over the following couple of months, the EPA effectively bypassed the city administration, taking 145 samples of leaks from seven other school buildings. Investigators found that 93 percent of the tested classrooms were contaminated. One school in Brooklyn had two samples at one million parts per million. The ballast oil was found to contain 100 percent PCBs.
A TEN-YEAR PLAN
In February, the mayor's office announced that it would allocate $708 million to replace all old T12 lights in schools over the next decade. This might seem like an impressive commitment for a city saddled with a multi-billion dollar deficit. But the Bloomberg administration has planned to replace T12s for years.
Last year, the US Department of Energy banned the production of T12 ballasts altogether. Next year, T12 lamps will meet a similar fate. A 2009 local law requires the city to perform energy audits in all public schools, and since more modern fluorescent lamps are at least 22 percent more energy efficient, T12 lamps must be replaced.
"It is always cost effective to retrofit or replace fixtures that use T12 lamps in existing applications," said a 2005 report New York Lawyers for the Public Interest sent to the New York City Department of Design and Construction. Replacing all the lights will have an impact equivalent to removing more than 40,000 cars from the road, according to a mayor's office press release.
Massie argues that news of pervasive PCB contamination has prompted no special urgency or generosity, just a "PCB gloss" on an old energy plan.
The Department of Education defended its timeframe as "an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimum disruption to student learning."
But New York Communities for Change, a coalition of working families from low- or moderate-income communities, the kind that can't easily send their kids off to private schools, doesn't think it's aggressive enough. Last month, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest filed a lawsuit on the coalition's behalf.
Community members and advocates no longer believe that the city will deal with the issue honestly. They complain that officials have lied about the health risks, hidden the causes, concealed the names of schools known to be contaminated and proposed a plan that looks suspiciously like something that already existed.
"I can't believe this will actually take ten years. The Department of Education is going to be very sorry," says Chapman, who has booked a CT Scan and blood tests to see if PCBs can explain her daughter's recurring illness. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of families in these schools."