Congress banned the production of PCBs in 1978 due to their toxicity and long-term health effects.
However, according to the Health Department, there is no immediate risk resulting from long-term exposure to PCBs. In addition, PCBs still exist in other sources, such as soil, air, water and food due to handling and disposal in the past.
In 2011, the City Council passed Local Law 68, requiring DOE to provide parents with a schedule for PCB light removal, including why it is necessary.
In a letter recently sent to New York City parents, DOE said it will remove the lights in schools across the city within the next 10 years.
“In 1978, the federal government banned the manufacture of PCBs in building materials,” the DOE letter states, “but, until recently, provided little guidance on how to identify and handle the materials in existing buildings.”
However, in a letter to schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the City Council charged that the DOE plan does not adequately follow Local Law 68.
Although the DOE letter states that PCB leaks were identified and schools known to have them will be given higher priority for removal, “the letter fails to set forth a schedule for light fixture removal for specific schools,” the Council letter stated.
“The DOE's noncompliance with these provisions of the law is unacceptable, because they are critically important to assure parents and employees that the problem has been identified and will be resolved expeditiously,” it said.
But Marge Feinberg, a DOE representative, said the city is spending $800 million on a PCB removal process that is unprecedented in the United States.
“While some people think we should spend more and do this faster, we continue to believe this is an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimum disruption to student learning and generate significant energy savings for the city and taxpayers in the long run,” Feinberg said.
“Our work will take place outside of school hours, to minimize the disruption to students and staff,” she added, echoing DOE's letter to parents.
Christina Giorgio, a staff attorney with the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), said in a pilot program under which DOE began PCB removal in five schools across the city, out of 795 lights taken down in P.S. 3R in Staten Island, 766 of them were leaking PCBs.
On July 20, 2011, the NYLPI filed a lawsuit against DOE and the SCA under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, which alleged that thousands of light fixtures across the city leak PCBs, violating federal law.
According to NYLPI, there are more than 1,200 schools in the city that have lights or caulking containing PCBs.
The DOE letter does not provide enough information to parents, she said, and the 10-year time frame is too long.
“That period of time is entirely too long to be exposing children and staff to toxic PCBs,” Giorgio said.
She said PCB lights require a lot of energy, and therefore are an economic drain as well as a threat to public health.
The issue is part of the NYLPI's Right to Know Campaign, which focuses on informing parents of what is going on in their children's schools.
“The purpose is to empower parents to take action, information is power,” Giorgio said, “and when you're giving parents the information they need to be proactive in their child's school environment, then you see things getting done.”