The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commended the City of New York for replacing lighting fixtures containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in 883 New York City public school buildings. This public health response began as a result of EPA’s enforcement of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. Testing by the EPA at 10 New York City public schools in early 2011 showed that about 80 percent of the samples from light fixtures exceeded the regulatory level of 50 parts per million. At one school in Brooklyn, EPA found pure PCBs (1,000,000 parts per million) in the light fixture. The EPA and New York City worked to develop and implement a plan to identify, prioritize and determine the most effective ways to reduce exposures from PCBs in lighting fixtures within the New York City public school system. Hundreds of jobs were created to implement the project and hundreds of thousands of lighting fixtures were replaced.
PCBs are probable carcinogens and can seriously damage the nervous system, immune system, reproductive system, and endocrine system. Exposure to PCBs may occur as a result of their release from old lighting equipment into the air and from direct contact with oil or dust on surrounding surfaces.
“PCBs are a particular risk to children because PCBs can damage their neurological system and affect their ability to learn. That is why it was so important to remove lighting fixtures that contain PCBs from all public schools in New York City. The New York City Department of Education is to be commended for protecting children’s health and saving energy with new and improved lightings,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator.
In 2010, New York City and EPA began measuring indoor PCB levels in a number of New York City public school buildings. That program identified caulk and lighting ballasts in older fluorescent lighting fixtures as sources of PCBs. EPA’s testing of light fixtures for PCBs in early 2011 confirmed there was a problem. In 2013 the Department of Education accelerated their efforts to replace old, PCB-containing lighting and the project was completed in December 2016. This work was also the result of a lawsuit filed by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
Over time, PCB-containing fluorescent light ballasts begin to fail. They can leak, volatize and can emit smoke, leading to elevated levels of PCBs in the air of schools. That’s why the EPA recommends that leaking ballasts must be removed and properly disposed of along with any part of the fixture that has been contaminated with PCBs.
A complete lighting retrofit improves energy efficiency by 30 to 50 percent. New York City performed an evaluation of the energy and associated cost savings at 28 City public schools. The schools are located throughout the five boroughs (nine in Brooklyn, seven in Manhattan, five in Queens, three in Staten Island, and four in the Bronx). The annual energy savings varied from 67,464 to 451,388 kilowatt-hours, with a respective annual cost savings of $11,131 to $74,479.
EPA has also developed written guidance as part of its ongoing efforts to address potential PCB problems in buildings such as schools. That guidance can be found at https://www.epa.gov/pcbs/polychlorinated-biphenyls-pcbs-building-materials#Information-Buildings.