Why the City isn’t required to tell you of toxic hazards at your child’s school and the new proposal to change that

Posted at 9:14 PM, Jul 02, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-02 21:14:18-04

JEROME PARK, BRONX (PIX11) – If toxic chemicals or other environmental hazards are suspected at your child’s school, the Department of Education is not obliged to tell you about it.  That’s what a group of parent and community advocates say as they attempt to get a city ordinance passed that would require the city to notify parents of toxic dangers in public school buildings.

A classic example of the lack of parental notification is the situation that existed at P.S. 51 in the Jerome Park section of the Bronx.  The school was created in the early 1990s in a converted lamp factory, and for two decades, the elementary school operated at its Jerome Avenue location.

When its 20 year lease came up for renewal, the DOE was required to test the site for toxins.  It found the presence of trichloroethylene, or TCE, a cancer-causing grease and paint remover, at the former industrial site.

“She was getting a lot of headaches,” said former P.S. 51 parent Ginette Sosa about her now-teenage daughter when she had attended the school.  “And the nurse would call me often, especially after lunch, and the TCE was [eventually] found in the cafeteria [area].”

DOE chemical tests that discovered the carcinogen were not revealed to parents for more than half a year after they were conducted, even though most of the testing was done while the students were in class, which in turn exposed the children further.

“They’re not transparent at all,” Sosa said about the DOE.  “They determine how much information they want to provide, and if they even want to.”

Sosa is part of a group of parents and other advocates trying to get a city council bill passed that would require that parents be notified of environmental and other hazards in public school buildings.  Currently there is no such requirement.  However, one recent, major development has parent advocates optimistic that change can occur.

The city learned in 2008 that some 1200 of its schools had the carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in its light fixtures and caulking.  The DOE set up a program to remove the PCBs citywide over the course of a decade, but parent groups contended that the process would be way too slow.  They sued the city, and were able to work out a deal with the DOE, in which the time for PCBs removal was slashed by the DOE from 10 years down to three-and-a-half.

Now, attorneys for parents express optimism that they can once again harness the power of parents to get legislation passed to ensure that families are notified of school environmental problems.

“We feel this is a very effective way to start the process to create a much more transparent, cleaner, healthier school environment,” said Christina Giorgio in an interview with PIX11 News.  She was the lead attorney on the action to get the city to reduce the time for removal of PCBs from schools, and is now spearheading the effort to get a city council parental notification law passed.

“We used parents’ right to know laws in the PCB campaign,” Giorgio said, “and it was very instrumental in getting parents informed.”

For its part, the DOE said in a statement that it’s pleased with its new timetable for eliminating PCBs, even though it came to that timetable as a result of legal action against the department.  “The agreement is consistent with the City’s longstanding plan to evaluate its ability to undertake the unprecedented replacement schedule on a shorter timeline without disrupting critical educational programs,” the DOE said.

It also closed P.S. 51, the school where TCE was discovered.  However, the DOE would not comment about two pending lawsuits from former workers at the school.  A teacher, Nancy Tomassi, claims that she had to abort a fetus she had been carrying after the unborn child developed severe disabilities consistent with the effects of TCE exposure.  Also, a former teacher’s aide, Rhonda Rivera, claims that her cancer diagnosis is the result of her exposure to the carcinogen while at school.