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Parents, teachers push for testing Hartford schools for toxic PCBs
Hartford Courant - 1/21/2020
Environmental tests of the air inside Achievement First Hartford High found only insignificant levels of toxic chemicals known as PCBs, alleviating concerns about the Hartford Public Schools-owned facility even as city schools with the same potential for contamination go untested.
Achievement First spokesperson Amanda Pinto said air samples taken on all floors of the building over the winter break contained less than 50 ng/m3 of polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic synthetic chemical compounds widely used in building materials in the 1950s to 1970s that have been associated with cancer and other health problems. That’s below the federal limit for children, ranging from 100 to 500 ng/m3, depending on age.
The charter school system decided to test its facility, Hartford’s old Lewis Fox Middle School, following a December news report about the potential presence of the hazardous chemicals in Hartford schools built between 1950 and 1979, when the PCBs commonly used in caulk, paint and other materials were banned by the federal government.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if Hartford would do the same?” said Carol Gale, a teacher at Global Communications Academy and candidate for president of the Hartford teachers union. “That’s really what everybody has been looking for, is that kind of reassurance. They have said a couple times some buildings have been tested during renovation periods but never have they disclosed what those tests were. That’s the communication we’re looking to have.”
Shortly after that news report by WVIT-TV, Gale and other city teachers and parents attended a Hartford school board meeting to call for testing of public school buildings from that era, including Bulkeley High School, Wish School, Batchelder School and Parkville Community School. In response, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez has said that all PCB contamination would be removed when those schools undergo major overhauls in coming years: Bulkeley in 2020, Wish in 2021 and Batchelder and Parkville in 2022.
The district has not indicated when, if ever, it tested those schools for the presence of PCBs, nor has the district shared the results of testing at seven other schools built in the same time period and remediated when they underwent full renovations.
Those are Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School, Classical Magnet School, Global Communications Academy, Hartford Public High School, Environmental Science Magnet at Mary Hooker, the Van Block campus of the Richard J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts and Weaver High School.
“We are guided by the appropriate state and federal agencies to establish and maintain a compliant approach for the management of potential PCB materials in our buildings,” the school district said in a written statement said. “We have learned that approximately 800 schools in Connecticut were built during the period when PCBs were used, and that less than a quarter have been tested or remediated."
However, there’s precedent for Hartford school staff, teachers and parents to worry.
In 2011, renovations at M.D. Fox School and the east building of Quirk Middle School -- now the home of Global Communications -- uncovered caulk with PCB levels above the federal limit, The Courant has reported based on records from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The cleanup and disposal plans for both schools required EPA approval.
In 2012, a window-replacement project turned up low concentrations of PCBs in window glazing at Simpson-Waverly, DEEP records showed.
In 2013, preparations for demolition work at West Middle turned up PCB levels exceeding state regulations in paint, flooring and other areas, The Courant reported in 2015 based on records from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
And in 2015, the city school district closed John C. Clarke Elementary School when workers uncovered caulk containing PCB levels up to 1,940 times the federal limit for school buildings. Clarke, built in 1966, is still closed and tied up in litigation with Monsanto Company, which produced the PCBs.
Community members have been clamoring for more information ever since, to no avail, said Ines Duke-Pegeas, president of the Greater Hartford African American Alliance.
“People just ignore regular residents’ questions,” she said. “We’re in this situation because the questions were not addressed when they were first brought up.”
Joshua Hall, vice president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers union and a state representative, was among those chiding the school board at their Dec. 19 meeting. Teachers haven’t received any more information from the school board since then, he said.
"You have folks in buildings now,” Hall said. “I don’t think they’ve tested anything. I think their plan is to essentially wait for these other renovations to happen, biding time.”
Quirk’s west building is only now being remediated for both PCBs and asbestos as part of a $7.5 million, state-funded renovation being led by the Hartford Police Athletic League, an after-school youth program that’s occupied the building for about six years.
As Hartford Public Schools has noted several times, state and federal agencies don’t require testing for PCBs, but Achievement First Hartford went ahead with it anyway.
“We want to do everything we can to help everyone feel safe and comfortable in our buildings,” Achievement First Hartford said in a December message to parents.
The Hartford school district, however, has resisted calls to test its unrenovated facilities and release the results of any past tests, angering some staff members and families.
The district did not make anyone available for an interview last week.
While no tests are scheduled, the district said it is working with an environmental consultant, Hartford’s corporation counsel and DEEP to review options for testing the unrenovated buildings potentially constructed with PCBs. The city said it has been part of those conversations since October or November.
The district had not requested more money from the city to pay for testing, or said how much tests would cost, according to city spokesperson Vasishth Srivastava.
“The school system has been consulting with experts to develop a plan to address concerns over the potential presence of PCBs in specific schools, and that’s the right approach," Mayor Luke Bronin said in a written statement. "We will continue to work with the Superintendent and Board of Education and support them any way we can.”
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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