Family group sues New York City schools over light fixtures

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 21, 2011 3:03 PM
Family group sues New York City schools over light fixtures

By Jessica Dye

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A coalition of families has filed a lawsuit demanding that New York City public schools remove aging fluorescent light fixtures it says are leaking a toxic substance that may harm children's health.

The city's Department of Education agreed in February to replace the fixtures over 10 years, but the lawsuit filed by New York Communities for Change on Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court contends that time frame is "unacceptably lax," given the "significant risks" the leaks pose to the health of children in hundreds of schools.

A 2010 Department of Education report estimated that 772 schools were using the light fixtures in question, parts of which contain polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, according to court documents.

The Environmental Protection Agency severely restricted the use of PCBs in 1978, declaring them a probable carcinogen linked to developmental disruptions in children.

The DOE report included results of a 2009 pilot study showing the fixtures were leaking PCB in amounts that were in many cases well over the EPA threshold for PCB air levels in schools, according to the lawsuit. PCBs also were identified in caulk used in school construction materials.

Given the dangers, the city's plan to replace the pre-1978, PCB-leaking light fixtures is inadequate, according to Communities for Change, which represents low- and moderate-income families in the city.

Experts estimate replacement could be executed in as little as two years, said Miranda Massie, a coalition attorney.

"What's absolutely clear is that 10 years is unreasonable and a joke," Massie said.

The same group filed suit in 2009 seeking removal of the PCB-tainted caulk. That suit was put on hold while the city conducted the pilot study that uncovered PCB in the lighting.

Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, called the city's $708 million plan unprecedented compared with other cities dealing with similar PCB issues.

"While some people think we should spend more and do this faster, we continue to believe this is an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimum disruption to student learning and generate significant energy savings for the city and taxpayers in the long run," Ravitz said in a statement.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston)