PCBs Found in NYC Schools

Environmental Law

Worried parents temporarily pulled their children from NYC schools recently after the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) discovered PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) levels exceeding federal regulatory limits in the school buildings. PCBs were discovered leaking from lighting ballasts, the electronic devices that control the current of electricity to overhead fluorescent light fixtures. PCBs may be cancer causing and are linked to other health problems such as diminished immune and reproductive function.

Despite the potential long-term impacts, the immediate health risks posed by the PCB leaks are still unclear. Toxicologists see the risk being correlative to intensity and that simply because lighting fixtures are leaking, does not mean that students and teachers are being exposed to high levels of PCBs. However, it is surmised that the longer the exposure, the higher the risk. In December 2010, the USEPA recommended that schools replace old light fixtures as soon as possible. As these lighting fixtures get older and older, they will continue to release PCBs into the air, increasing the concentration of PCBs and the risk of health problems.

There has been some push back from the Bloomberg Administration to replace all the fluorescent light fixtures as the estimated cost would be about $1 billion. However, City officials are replacing light fixtures that are known to be leaking. There are continued discussions between the City and USEPA concerning further replacement of fixtures and overall upgrades of other PCB-containing materials.

With regard to liability, it may be difficult to hold one party responsible for any specific health effects from PCB exposure because determining the exact source is near impossible. A recent New York Times article noted that “EPA officials say most people have low levels of PCBs in their bodies, mostly from exposure through foods like fish and dairy products, but also from air, indoor dust, and outside soils.” As a result, it would be difficult to prove that an illness was caused by PCBs from leaking lighting ballasts rather from some contaminated foods.

For more information on PCB contamination and other legal issues concerning hazardous materials, please contact Miriam Villani or Jason Kaplan.

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