The city Department of Education in January 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.
“We are dedicated to ensuring that the buildings where our educators teach and our children study are safe and healthy environments,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “The union fought for the speedy removal of these dangerous light fixtures and is proud of its role in getting the job done.”
The problem was discovered in New York City schools in 2010. In July 2011, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and New York Communities for Change— which together had filed a federal lawsuit over the Bloomberg administration’s timeline to replace the fixtures — reached an agreement with the city on the emotionally charged issue, putting in place a plan to replace all the fixtures with safe, energy-efficient ones by 2021. The UFT had recommended a much shorter two- to five-year replacement timeline.
But when 11 students and a teacher from PS 123 in Harlem were hospitalized in 2013 after a fixture containing the chemicals began emitting smoke, the city agreed to expedite the cleanup and reduced the timeline from 10 years to five.
The executive director of New York Communities for Change thanked the UFT at the time for the major role it played in “advocating for removing the fixtures and reporting when the lights were leaking.”
The city’s School Construction Authority estimates removal of the fixtures, which could only be done while schools were unoccupied, cost $1 billion.
Lighting ballasts and caulking installed between 1950 and 1979 contained the now-banned PCBs, which are linked to cancer and respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and immune disorders.