PCBs in city schools

Background

The city Department of Education in January 2017 fulfilled its agreement to clear 765 public school buildings of light fixtures containing the probable carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that had threatened the well-being of students and teachers. After years of pressure from parents, the UFT and other groups — and after disturbing incidents of dripping and smoking ballasts — the fixtures were removed five years ahead of the city’s original schedule.

The problem was discovered in New York City schools in 2010 when the DOE conducted a systemwide survey to identify T-12 fluorescent lighting fixtures containing ballasts with PCBs. As of May 2013, 654 schools still had the toxic fixtures.

Useful resources

The NYC School Construction Authority (SCA) actively maintained several lists related to its work inspecting and replacing light fixtures:

Information on PCBs

Warning signs

Below is a short list of warning signs that may indicate a PCB leak or problem with the fluorescent light fixtures in your school.

  • Burned-out lights that do not work even if the bulbs are changed.
  • Evidence of brown, oily stains on the light fixture itself or on the glass lens of the fluorescent light fixture.
  • Evidence of oil stains on floor tiles or carpeting beneath the lighting fixture.
  • Past episodes of smoke or burning odors that required the custodian to service the lights.
  • Past episodes in which the custodian had to remove a light fixture or take it apart to replace electrical parts.

Ventilation

Is the ventilation system in your school turned on and working? If outside air is supplied via windows, are the windows open as much as possible, weather permitting? An inoperable ventilation system or closed windows will exacerbate any problems.

In an emergency

The following are emergency steps to take if a fluorescent light fixture begins to smoke, emit an electrical burning odor or drip oil:

  • If a fluorescent light fixture begins to smoke, if oil is dripping from the light or if you smell an electrical burning odor, the room should be evacuated immediately.
  • Follow the notification procedures for your school and also notify your UFT chapter leader who in turn will notify the union.
  • Arrangements will be made for an environmental consultant to inspect the light fixture, including the interior housing and the ballast.
  • The room should be ventilated and there should be a custodial cleaning before it is safe to occupy.

Report what you find

Please follow the reporting procedures for your school to report any of the above checklist conditions to your school custodian and to your chapter leader who in turn will notify the UFT Safety and Health representative at your UFT borough office.

The plan

The UFT had been outspoken regarding the need to remove and replace the PCB light fixtures. In May 2013, the Department of Education agreed to cut in half its time frame for replacing them, with a scheduled completion date of the end of 2016 reached as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by New York Communities for Change. The DOE had previously insisted that it needed through 2021 to finish the work. The project was completed in January 2017.

The DOE had prioritized light fixture removal and replacements in those schools assumed to have PCB light fixtures as follows:

  • School buildings with observed leaks
  • Elementary schools constructed between 1950 and 1966
  • Elementary schools constructed between 1967 and 1978
  • Secondary schools constructed between 1950 and 1966
  • Secondary schools constructed between 1967 and 1978

Report what you find

Please follow the reporting procedures for your school to report any of the above checklist conditions to your school custodian and to your chapter leader who, in turn, will notify the UFT Safety and Health representative at your UFT borough office.

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