The City of New York Must Remediate PCBs Now, Not in 10 Years

Last month, after considerable resistance, the City of New York announced a comprehensive plan to remediate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from 772 of New York's public schools throughout the five boroughs. This was welcome news and major progress in a years-long campaign led by the authors of this op-ed, along with a coalition of parents, advocates, union members, and other elected officials. Months of testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced incontrovertible evidence that hundreds of schools are contaminated with PCBs at levels dramatically above federal guidelines, and inaction was no longer an option.

In finally agreeing to take this critical step, the City acknowledged the health threat posed by PCB-laden light ballasts on school children, teachers and staff. Unfortunately, the City now proposes to do the job of replacing them in an astounding 10 years. Such a timeline falls far short of treating the health risks with the seriousness and urgency that our school kids deserve. And the EPA, the nation's foremost authority on PCB contamination and remediation, is firmly on our side. Judith Enck, the EPA's regional administrator for New York, asserted plainly that "ten years is too long."

Nevertheless, the doubters are on the attack. Backing the City's own naysayers, an editorial in the New York Daily News claimed that PCBs posed "near-zero risk" and that we are "needlessly alarming parents." And a phony expert in the New York Post called the evidence on PCBs "junk-science," and accused us of fanning "hysteria" and of being "fearmongers." These articles read like propaganda straight from the PR department of a PCB manufacturer, defending the City's risky proposal and pooh-poohing the dangers of PCBs for children.

But, back in reality, the dangers of PCB exposure are well-documented, and the science is crystal clear -- so much so that Congress banned the chemicals in 1976. PCBs are a known neurotoxin and a fertility toxin, making exposure for children and pregnant women particularly dangerous. The EPA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Toxicology Program of the National Institute of Health have all determined that PCBs are a probable human carcinogen. Expert environmental health physicians and scientists have linked PCBs to cardiovascular, endocrine, immune and cognitive disabilities.

Prenatal and early childhood exposure shows serious risks, including ADHD, increased aggression, and the concerns already mentioned. Children can be exposed to PCBs by breathing contaminated air, in addition to ingesting PCB-contaminated food and coming into physical contact with PCBs. The longer that a child breathes air containing these toxins, the more intense their exposure becomes, and the more risk they bear of developing a serious health condition -- or simply, of not reaching their full developmental potential.

These delays and doubts about the established science are offensive and disconcerting, and remind us of the years following the attacks of 9/11 when irresponsible authorities -- both City and federal -- told us the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe, when it obviously was not. Government should have been the people's protector then, and we insist that it learn history's lessons by acting honestly and appropriately now. Must it always take people -- children, in the case of PCBs -- becoming sick before we accept the scientific proof and address environmental health problems?

Ten years is an intolerable window of exposure for children. Every month more schools are tested and reveal staggering levels of PCBs. We wonder if the doubters would consider sending their kids to P.S. 306 in Brooklyn, where tests of several rooms revealed PCBs at over one million parts per million, which makes the sample 100% pure PCBs. Will kids sit there in those classrooms for a week, a month, a school year, perhaps six years through the course of elementary school? Are you willing to take that risk with your own kids?

Assemblymember Rosenthal has introduced legislation to expedite the City's response and replace 100% of all toxic light ballasts in school buildings constructed or substantially renovated between 1950 and 1978 over the course of three to five years. This is a timeline that we can live with.

And, in efforts to help cities like ours finance the substantial cost of remediating PCBs, Rep. Nadler has legislation -- the Safe Schools, Health Kids Act, also sponsored by Reps. Joe Crowley (D-Queens) and Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) -- which would provide one possible avenue.

In addition, there are already a variety of other funding sources to consider, including contracting with energy service companies (ESCOs) to replace old energy-guzzling light fixtures. ESCOs are eager to provide upfront funding and would realize profits through payments derived from energy efficiency savings. The New York Power Authority has also offered technical assistance to the City for this project. Employing these energy efficient models would actually pay for the project in as few as three years. With minimal cost to the City and the opportunity to quickly address these dangers for current students, what reasons does the City have for delaying the cleanup that must inevitably occur?

We cannot continue to play Russian Roulette with our kids' lives. PCBs must be remediated quickly and efficiently from New York's schools.