By the time they’re in school, most children grow accustomed to hearing their parents echo cautionary instructions so common they’ve become part of the fabric of our society: wash your hands before eating and look both ways before crossing, to name a few.
But Naomi Gonzalez, a Bronx mother of two, has instilled in her 7-year-old daughter advice that may seem unorthodox at first.
“I don’t let her drink the water in school, and she knows to ask not to sit by the window,” Gonzalez said.
Her daughter’s school, P.S. 178, is one of 85 citywide public schools — 20 of which are in Queens — where the Department of Education found traces of toxic PCB-contaminated caulk on classroom windows last year. Gonzalez, along with parents in the Bronx and Manhattan, has filed a lawsuit against the DOE and School Construction Authority. And, with the help of attorneys from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, parents from Queens may not be far behind.
“These are really, really, really bad compounds,” said Miranda Massie, a lawyer at NYLPI. “There’s no doubt that other schools that haven’t been tested have been affected.”
Before the 1970s, PCBs, which stands for polychlorinated biphenyls, were added to the caulking material used to cushion window and door frames to make them more elastic, according to the NYLPI. Although they were banned in 1979, products that may still contain the compound include electrical equipment, oil-based paints, floor finishes and caulking — which has recently been found in abundance on many school windows.
PCBs volatize into air and don’t stay in place, Massie said, affecting the quality of air students breathe, as well as the soil around a facility.
“Even if they replace the windows, that doesn’t do it,” she said. “You need a complete clean up.”
The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes PCBs as potential cancer-causing agents in humans based on studies that found they caused cancer in animals. The toxin has also been known to negatively impact the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. According to David Carpenter, director for the Institute for Health and the Environment, PCB exposure, whether by inhalation or ingestion of PCB-contaminated foods, causes an irreversible loss of cognitive function and results in increased symptoms of hyperactivity, decreased general performance and decreased ability to deal with frustration — all of which constitute what is known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
At P.S. 65 in Ozone Park, which was built on a former industrial site where helicopter parts were made, a similar uproar was heard among parents when the toxin trichloroethylene was found beneath the building. TCE is known to cause liver, kidney and nerve damage. Many parents came forward to protest the unsafe conditions and the DOE retained external testers to test the quality of air inside the school.
“Kids were coming home with headaches,” recalled David Quintana, an education advocate.
At first, the DOE tried to sweep the PCB problem under the rug, Gonzalez and Massie said. “I attended a school meeting and left fuming,” Gonzalez said of a hearing two years ago with DOE health officials where parents were told the results of caulk studies performed on schools couldn’t be provided yet.
“Our children’s safety is too important to be casually dismissed by school construction authorities or anyone else,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters. “Parents in the past have tried to raise money for independent assessments of those schools where PCBs were found, but this is something the city should provide.”
After what Massie calls more than a year of “dishonest denial” on the part of the DOE, the agency is now working to rid schools of the toxins, they say.
“We are engaged in positive and productive discussions with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop an agreement on a plan to address the PCBs in NYC public schools,” the DOE said in a statement.
PCB-contaminated caulk found by DOE
- J.H.S. 25, Flushing
- J.H.S. 67, Little Neck
- J.H.S. 158, Bayside
- I.S. 210, Ozone Park
- P.S. 13, Elmhurst
- P.S. 22, Flushing
- P.S. 49, Middle Village
- P.S. 68, Ridgewood
- P.S. 76, Long Island City
- P.S. 84, Astoria
- P.S. 130, Flushing
- P.S. 159, Bayside
- P.S. 164, Flushing
- P.S. 169, Bayside
- Beach Channel H.S., Rockaway
- Cardozo H.S., Bayside
- Cleveland H.S., Ridgewood
- Hillcrest H.S., Jamaica
- H.S. Teaching Professionals, Bellerose
- John Bowne H.S., Flushing