Toxic waste in schools

Probably the most “important” story I did at the Daily News was an investigation that broke the story of toxic PCBs in the caulking of public schools.   The Daily News tested caulking sampled from several NYC public schools in 2008 and found that most contained many times more PCBs than the threshold for toxic waste.  Anything with more than 50 parts-per-million of PCBs is considered toxic waste, and I found 225,000 ppm in the caulking of one Upper West Side elementary school, and similar contamination at schools in other boroughs.

The initial coverage and ensuing City Council hearings and lawsuits finally resulted in a settlement in January 2010 between the EPA and New York City to deal with the PCB caulking in what was supposed to be a national model to deal with this nationwide problem (PCB-laced caulking was widely used across the country before 1977).   As the issue snowballed, the EPA attempted a surprising  about-face and quietly proposed changing its regulations to exempt caulking from the 50-ppm safety standard.  That wasn’t an easy sell at the Manhattan public hearing on the matter and the proposal was scuttled, but it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway.  Further testing during the clean up has revealed that aging flourescent lights are also a significant source of PCB contamination in schools.

My coverage of the issue eventually led to major changes in city, state and federal policy regarding legacy PCB contamination, the discovery and remediation of similar contamination in other school districts across the nation, Congressional legislation to fund school clean ups, and new research into the effects of long-term, low-dose PCB exposure on childhood development.

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