Testimony on the DOE's plan to increase energy efficiency and environmental quality in schools, including the removal of PCBs

Testimony of Chris Proctor, UFT Director of Safety and Health, at a New York City Council oversight hearing

Good afternoon, Chairman Gennaro, Chairman Jackson and distinguished members of these two committees. My name is Chris Proctor and I am the Director of the Safety and Health Department for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

The officers and members of the UFT believe that safe, healthy school environments are a fundamental right. It is the reason that we invest resources in health and safety and have health and safety staff stationed in every borough to support school communities citywide. We underscore our commitment by working closely with our colleagues at the Department of Education (DOE) and the School Construction Authority (SCA) to provide a safe learning environment for all students and staff.

The idea that hundreds of our schools may contain elevated levels of PCBs is a scary prospect for parents and educators alike. The idea that the DOE does not seem to see the urgency in fixing this problem is even scarier.

What’s more, approximately 420 of our schools have boilers that burn No. 4 or No. 6 fuel oil. No. 4 and No. 6 fuel heating oils, which are the heaviest cut from petroleum refining, are tarlike. Combustion of these fuel oils produces a higher amount of air pollution compared to other fuel oils and air pollutants generated by cars and trucks.

We take these health threats in our schools very seriously, and we have several recommendations today that we hope the Council will support.


PCBs are toxic and known to cause cancer and birth defects (affecting birth weight, short-term memory and learning). They aren’t easily broken down and tend to accumulate in a person’s body over time.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established recommended airborne exposure levels (benchmark levels) for PCBs in schools. These levels are designed to protect children and staff from chronic, long-term exposure to low levels of airborne PCBs.

For background purposes, it is important to know how we got to this point. The School Construction Authority conducted the first phase of a pilot study in three schools during the summer of 2010. The purpose of the study was to evaluate the risk of PCB exposure to school occupants caused by caulking that contained PCBs.

The study found classrooms with airborne levels of PCBs above EPA health guidance levels for schools. But instead of the caulking, the EPA found that old lighting fixtures containing ballasts with PCB-laden oil were the significant problem. When the SCA removed and replaced the broken and leaking light fixtures, their air testing results showed substantial reductions in airborne levels of PCBs in all three pilot school buildings.

In subsequent meetings with the DOE and the SCA in early September 2010, we urged them to immediately develop a plan to remove and replace these pre-1979 fluorescent lighting fixtures citywide. The DOE and the SCA insisted that there was no money for such a plan and argued that furthermore the pilot study should be completed before considering such a plan.

Since that time, the EPA has inspected additional schools for leaking light fixtures, and a handful of independent tests have also been conducted. The findings have supported the conclusions of the initial pilot study. For its part, the DOE asked custodians to do their own visual inspections of lights, but that effort has been completely ineffective. The DOE has also been reluctant to conduct air sampling.

Bowing to increasing public pressure, the city in February finally decided to allocate $700 million to replace light fixtures in nearly 800 school buildings citywide over the next 10 years, as part of a broader effort that involves other energy-efficient retrofits and upgrades.

While the city’s plan is a good first step, we are very concerned about the 10-year timeline, which we feel is much too long for our children to wait. We believe the decision to replace the old light fixtures over 10 years is based on funding and not on a scientific assessment of the health risk. It’s misleading to suggest to the public that there is no imminent risk. Consider this:

  • The PCB-containing light ballasts are 40 to 60 years old and are already significantly past their expected functioning life span. The parts for these lights are being phased out entirely. (The manufacture of the ballasts for these lights was phased out in July 2010 and the manufacture of the bulbs will be phased out in July 2012).
  • Any given ballast in these old fixtures is likely to overheat and burn out within the 10-year period proposed for replacing them. It happens all the time, and when it does, the ballast releases smoke that contains PCBs, causing a period of elevated exposure.
  • The EPA’s inspections in seven New York City public schools to date revealed leaking PCBs in light fixtures in the majority of the light fixtures that the EPA disassembled and inspected. This suggests that a large fraction of the PCB ballasts have already failed and leaked. Those ballasts will continue to release small amounts of PCBs over time until they are removed. There is the potential for skin contact if the PCBs leak out of the light fixture onto the floor, carpeting or whatever is below the light fixture.
  • The presence of PCB ballasts in school buildings presents a unique exposure risk. The older New York City schools that are most likely to have PCB-containing light fixtures typically have little or no mechanical ventilation and often rely on windows for ventilation.


Beyond PCBs, another pressing concern is the boilers in approximately 420 schools that burn No. 4 or No. 6 fuel heating oil. Buildings use these oils because they are cheap compared to other fuel oils, but they produce a higher amount of air pollution compared to other fuel oils because of their tar-like consistency.

No. 4 and No. 6 fuel oils contain higher amounts of sulfur than other fuel oils, and combustion produces sulfur dioxide, which is corrosive and a respiratory irritant. Combustion also produces black smoke that is high in soot and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (coal tars) which, when inhaled, are linked to lung and skin cancers. The American Lung Association notes that exposure to these pollutants may lead to lung and heart conditions, contributes to asthma and can cause a significant decrease in life expectancy.

To put all of this in context, here are some key statistics to consider:

  • The New York Community Air Survey (NYCCAS), as part of PlaNYC, found that 1 percent of the city’s buildings contributed 86 percent of the city’s heating oil soot pollution.
  • These 10,000 buildings include large residential, commercial and institutional buildings, including the 420 New York City public schools that burn No. 4 and No. 6 heating oil.
  • According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “overall these residential, commercial and institutional heating systems release 50 percent more soot and 17 times more sulfur dioxides than cars and trucks on New York City’s roads.”
  • Also according to the Environmental Defense Fund, “switching from No. 6 oil to No. 2 heating oil reduces particulate emissions by about 95 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions by about 68 percent and nitrogen dioxides by about 65 percent.”


The city has taken a few good first steps with regard to PCBs and boilers. We are happy that funding has been allocated to start the removal of the toxic light fixtures and to replace up to 287 boilers that use No. 4 or No. 6 fuel oil. However, much more needs to be done – and done soon.

With regard to PCBs, the prudent course of action is to expedite the removal and replacement of pre-1979 light fixtures citywide. We strongly urge an aggressive removal plan beginning immediately. We believe the removal of all PCB-containing light fixtures can be done in two years and certainly no more than five years. The first step would be an air sampling program in the 770 targeted schools. Levels of PCBs in air can be measured in representative areas inside a school to rank schools with the goal of giving priority to those schools where action should be taken soonest.

With regard to boilers, the DOE’s New York City Schools Comprehensive Plan states that the DOE will replace boilers that burn No. 4 or No. 6 fuel oils in up to 287 schools in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the Five Year Capital Plan Proposed Amendment from February allots $136 million for conversions of boilers in some schools, targeting those in areas with high asthma rates, without a specific plan of action or a solid timeline. It is not clear whether the 10-year New York City Schools Comprehensive Plan includes the money or the number of the boilers in the Capital Plan or whether it is in addition to the 287 boiler replacements. This needs to be clarified. Furthermore, what is the DOE’s plan for the remaining 133 schools with old toxic boilers? We strongly urge the DOE and the SCA to develop a comprehensive two to five year plan for converting all these boilers, starting with converting all No. 6 boilers to dual fuel gas/No. 2 oil boilers.

Our school communities throughout the city need this work on PCB-containing light fixtures and old boilers done as quickly as possible. This will not only greatly benefit the health of our school communities, but of all New Yorkers.

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