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NYC to Remove Hazardous PCB Lighting Fixtures from 772 Schools

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February 23, 2011

New York City has agreed to remove fluorescent lighting fixtures in 772 schools because testing shows many are leaking toxic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

After months of pressure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concerned parents and lawmakers, New York City has set aside more than $700 million dollars to remove old lighting fixtures that are leaking PCB. However, critics say the City is not working fast enough with a ten-year removal plan, reports The New York Times.

Polychlorinated biphenyls are a family of man-made chemicals used widely in manufacturing from 1929 until banned by the government in 1979. Manufacturers used PCBs in many applications, including electronics, lubricants, cable insulation, thermal insulation, adhesives, oil-bases paints, caulking, carbonless copy paper and fluorescent light ballasts.

The EPA has conducted PCB testing of lighting fixtures at the City’s schools, finding that every school tested had leaking ballasts that could be polluting the air with PCBs.

“Today’s announcement by the City that it is moving forward with a comprehensive plan to remediate PCB contaminated light ballasts is a critical step forward,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler. “However, the City’s time frame of 10 years to replace the light ballasts is unacceptable. Continued exposure to toxic PCBs will continue to place our children, teachers and school staff at risk. We cannot ignore the urgency of this very real and growing public health problem, and the City must act quickly to remove these dangerous chemicals from our schools.”

Although the government banned the use PCBs in 1979, people still suffer exposure to these chemicals by breathing PCB contaminated air, drinking PCB contaminated water or by using appliances and electrical devices such as fluorescent lighting fixtures made 30 or more years ago that can leak PCBs.

PCBs can cause cancer and other PCB adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system. A study entitled Serum Concentrations of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Relation to in Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Outcomes in this month’s issue of Environmental Health Perspectives from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that PCB exposure is associated with implantation failure of fertilized embryos after in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures.

“This is a progressive plan to increase energy efficiency at our schools and simultaneously address the issue of PCBs in old light fixtures,” Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black said in a statement. “Given that both the EPA and the Department of Health have said there is no immediate health threat to students in these buildings, we believe this is the most responsible way to proceed. This plan can be accomplished without any significant interruption to student learning, and it will generate significant energy savings in the long run.”

While the City assures the public that children and school employees are in no danger, the EPA says these steps should be taken where any fluorescent lighting ballast is leaking:

  • Relocation of students and teachers from the affected area into temporary quarters during cleanup and decontamination which may disrupt school programs and functions;
  • Hiring properly trained and qualified cleanup personnel;
  • Cleanup and decontamination of contaminated equipment and surfaces;
  • Analytical testing of contaminated equipment and surfaces for PCBs;
  • Compliance with environmental regulations for proper storage and disposal of contaminated equipment and cleanup materials;
  • Retesting of equipment and surfaces to ensure that they are free of PCBs and other contaminants; and
  • Replacement of leaking or burned fixtures and any other contaminated materials.

“Postponing a lighting retrofit and betting on the structural integrity of old ballasts may result in health and educational impacts for your students and staff and serious cost impacts for your budget,” the EPA website says.