Health hazard in a Harlem school

April 25, 2008 | Page 4

New York City teacher BRIAN JONES talks about the ramifications of a 
safety issue uncovered at his school.

I TEACH at an elementary school in East Harlem, where my coworkers 
and I recently learned that there are high levels of cancer-causing 
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in our building.

A reporter from the New York Daily News took samples of caulking from 
nine random new York City schools, and lab tests found high levels of 
PCBs in eight of them. We were on the list.

What are PCBs? They are a manmade substance that was used, in this 
case, to strengthen caulk. PCBs were banned in 1977 when they were 
found to be hazardous to humans. The Daily News article cites studies 
indicating that exposure to PCBs can "inhibit the growth of brain 
cells" in children and has been linked to "anti-social behavior, 
depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder-type 

Probably not a good idea to leave the stuff lying around in an 
elementary school, right?

Well, not according to the NYC Department of Education (DOE). After 
learning about the Daily News findings, the DOE conducted its own 
investigation and found that the PCBs had not become airborne (except 
in one of the schools named in the report--not ours).

The DOE maintains that the caulk isn't hazardous as long as it's left 
"undisturbed." However, according to a fact sheet from our union, the 
United Federation of Teachers, on government environmental 
regulations, "Materials containing 50 parts per million (ppm) or more 
of PCBs must be disposed of as a hazardous material." The Daily News 
reported that our school's caulk has PCBs of 5,300 ppm--more than 100 
times the acceptable limit.

In the last two weeks, we have been repeatedly assured that the 
building is safe. Officials from the School Construction Authority 
met with us and explained that the Daily News only sampled caulk 
outside the building, while their investigation was done inside the 
building--and they only found PCBs to have leached out from the caulk 
in one room, and that room had been scrubbed and scoured.

We have also been told that PCBs are essentially omnipresent in 
modern cities, and that we have probably been exposed to them in 
greater quantities just by eating fish over the years. In the words 
of one of our union's health officials, PCBs are an "immortal" 
substance--they are not processed or removed by body functions, they 
just build up over time.

But these words haven't provided much reassurance--for several reasons.

First, we have yet to see the actual lab results with our own eyes. 
One teacher called the Daily News reporter the same morning the story 
came out, and within minutes received a copy of his lab report. The 
DOE tests were conducted a month ago, and we have yet to receive the 
results. We have only been told that they found "acceptable" levels 
of PCBs--we haven't seen the actual report!

Officials made the mistake of telling us, "Your job is to teach, not 
to interpret technical documents." This was a slap in the face and 
further confirmed teachers' fears that something doesn't add up here.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
IT'S NOT just about the PCBs. As one teacher pointed out, "You're 
talking to a skeptical audience here. They told us that Ground Zero 
was safe for the rescue workers. Look how that turned out. And now we 
see that the FAA was in bed with the airline companies. The 
regulators aren't regulating."

The issue is bigger than this health hazard. Even if it turns out 
that the danger posed by the PCBs is low, experience tells us that we 
are teaching in a toxic environment.

East Harlem leads the nation in respiratory illnesses, and it's not 
hard to see why. You can ask the legions of 8-year-olds huffing and 
puffing their way up and down staircases. Or just look around the 
neighborhood. You'll see Harlem River Drive a stone's throw away, 
packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. You'll see a bus depot, an 
overhead commuter train roaring by--and, of course, plenty of 
buildings with rotting walls, mold, rats and roaches.

Several of the long-term teachers in our school have developed 
respiratory illnesses. We have an abnormally high rate of cancer 
among the staff and a high rate of mortality. This school year, it 
seems like we have had an especially high rate of hospitalizations, 
and tragically, one colleague passed away last term.

There are great things happening at our school. We just had an arts 
festival that showed off the wonderful dance, art, music and even 
drama programs we have. Unfortunately, that's a lot more than most 
kids in Harlem get.

This is not about "negative publicity." This is about doing the 
things for our school that wealthier neighborhoods always demand for 

We may not yet have all of the evidence. Perhaps we can't attribute 
every illness or fatality to the conditions of the neighborhood and 
the school. But it's obvious to those who have been there the longest 
that, despite working in a clean, relatively well-maintained 
building, something is not right.

The students and parents are concerned. But we, the teachers, happen 
to have a big organization (our union), through which we ought to be 
able to do something. We need to see the DOE report. And we need 
screens on our windows, new filters for the air conditioners and, 
yes, removal of the PCBs.