After a twenty-year wait, EPA was set to issue its updated hazard assessment for trichloroethylene (“TCE“) earlier this month. Unfortunately – – at least for everyday American citizens – – the deadline passed without a word from EPA. TCE is a man-made volatile organic compound used by corporations for decades to strip grease and grime off metal parts. As a result of careless handling, TCE can be found in soil, air, and groundwater at polluted Superfund sites across the Country. TCE is known to cause a host of injuries to human health, including to the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and lungs. The updated and unreleased hazard assessment would have upgraded TCE‘s cancer classification from a “likely human carcinogen” to a “known human carcinogen”. So why would the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment, fail to release an up-to-date hazard assessment of TCE? The answer is simply: POLITICS. You see, once the updated hazard assessment is released, corporate polluters lose what matters most to them: money. An updated hazard assessment would lead to more stringent clean-up standards and open the door to more personal injury lawsuits filed on behalf of people who were made sick or died from exposure to TCE. Facing these unwanted consequences, corporate polluters turn to “go-to” politicians for help. Sadly, in this case, that help came from the White House, according to Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In his blog of September 13th, Mr. Rosenberg reported that “[T]he White House worked behind the scene to stop EPA from issuing a hazard assessment of the cancer-causing chemical TCE – and is working to effectively shut down the EPA’s program for assessing the hazards of chemicals – the basis for setting and updating health standards for drinking water, air quality, and clean-up of contaminated soil.” The shelving of the updated TCE hazard assessment is just another sad example of how politics and polluters can and do, mix. In this case, the results are a more toxic America.
Basin City, Washington got it right. Last Thursday, Basin City took tests of the system that feeds water into the local elementary school and found E. coli bacteria. So, school officials immediately notified the parents of the children attending Basin City Elementary School. They also decided that the school would be closed right away (on Monday) and “until further notice, for the safety of the students and staff.” [See this Tri-City Herald article of 8/28/11] This is what responsible adults in charge of a school do. They put the safety of the children first; they tell the parents what’s going on. When in the slightest doubt about whether the environment of the school poses a danger to the children, they close the school until there is no longer any doubt. I’m sure this decision caused great inconvenience to the Basin City school children, their families, teachers at the school, administrators, etc. And it will probably cost the school district a good deal of money, too….especially if the school is closed for any significant period of time. But it was the right thing to do. When it comes to children’s health, you protect first and deal with the financial and convenience issues later. Now, I don’t mention this to applaud the Basin City officials. They simply did what they are paid to do. Protecting the school’s children is their first job; when they do that job correctly, it’s to be expected. It’s not heroic. No, I mention Basin City because it stands in such shocking contrast to the reckless behavior of the adults charged with protecting the children who attend the Bronx New School in New York. Beginning in January of this year–and then again in March, April and May–officials in the New York City Department of Education, like their counterparts in Basin City, Washington, got back test results showing that something was very wrong in the school’s environment. In the case of the Bronx New School, it was contamination in the air at the school. Contamination by a chemical known as “TCE“. Bronx New School officials also learned this: TCE causes cancer. It is especially dangerous to children, and especially dangerous when in the air…..because the children breathe it all the time. Worse yet: the levels of the TCE discovered at the school were up to 10,000 times what the City’s own Department of Health says is safe. 10,000 times. So, they got the kids out of the school, right? They told their parents, right? A no-brainer, right? Sadly, no. What the Bronx New School officials did was as opposite as could be from the decision-makers in Basin City. In a display of horrifyingly bad judgment, they kept the kids in the school until the end of the school year–for a full 6 months after the discovery of the dangerous TCE contamination. Foolishly, they pretended that they could sweep the TCE out of the school’s air at night, by opening all the windows… only to close the windows up in the morning, and allow the TCE to re-accumulate in the school’s cafeteria, hallway and classrooms in time for the kids to breathe it the next day. Oh, and they kept all of this a secret from the parents of those kids. They only told the parents after the school year was over. When it was too late for the parents to do anything to protect their kids. For this, the Bronx New School officials have been justifiably blasted by the parents, and by public officials, like New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell. Koppell labeled the failure to tell parents about the contamination both “egregious” and “totally unacceptable”, and said that the delay in informing parents “has created anger and distrust among the parents…..and concerns about their children’s health.” [See this BoogieDowner post dated 8/25/11] School officials are now lamely defending their inaction and secrecy by saying that they didn’t have the “final scientific determination” until near the end of the school year….so, they couldn’t really do anything before then to protect the kids, or even warn their parents. Really? What is it about a TCE hit of 10,000 times the “safe” level that makes you think you can, or should, wait for some consultant’s “final” report before you can tell the parents, or protect their kids? And if you had no “final” scientific determination to confirm that the situation was indeed dangerous, why would you open the windows at night, and try to blow the TCE out of the school? At the end of the day, it’s really not about “final scientific determinations”, is it? I’ll bet that the Basin City folks still don’t have a “final scientific determination” about their water contamination. But, they didn’t need one. More than a consultant’s written “final” report, they have common sense and decency….and a basic respect for the community’s children and their parents. That is what’s missing at the Bronx New School.
The TCE contamination discovered earlier this year in the air that the kids breathe at the Bronx New School was so bad that the City’s environmental consultant instructed the New York City School Construction Authority (NYCSCA) to “immediate[ly]…open all windows in the first and second-floor classrooms at the end of each school day….until the regular school session ends”, and “operat[e] the building HVAC system in summer mode”. (my emphasis added) All in the hopes of blowing out of the school the dangerous levels of TCE in the air that had accumulated during the day. [See the consultant’s report provided here, at “Executive Summary”, at pages 1-2] Then, when the kids came back to school in the morning, the windows would be shut again. No parents were told that this was going on. And, because the windows were to be shut by start-of-school in the morning, there would be no reason for any parent to ask questions. No parents were told that their kids were going to school every day in a building where the TCE contamination levels surpassed–sometimes by a shocking amount (see below)–the supposedly “safe” TCE levels established by the New York Department of Health. And I’ve seen nothing to prove that–after the windows were once again shut for the full school day, with the kids inside — the dangerous TCE levels did not return for the kids to breathe in their classrooms. Presumably, the dangerous levels did return, because as soon as the kids left school for the day, the windows were once again to be thrown open. Here is what led to the “Open Windows, Shut Mouths” policy for the New Bronx School: January 2011: NYCSCA’s consultant discovers from a search of public records that there are at least FOURTEEN “environmental conditions” either on school property or very nearby, that might pose a threat to the kids attending the school. (The report does not say why the NYCSCA did not review these records years earlier.) The consultant also discovers TCE contamination in the air in the school’s First Floor Cafeteria and the Hallway Near the School’s Entrance that is TEN TIMES higher than levels allowed by the Department of Health. [See consultant report on pages 3-4, 12]. Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. March 2011: More TCE testing. This time the consultant discovers TCE concentrations in the school’s basement sub-slab, underneath the Cafeteria, of TEN THOUSAND TIMES Department of Health maximums. TCE in other sub-slab locations is also discovered to be ONE HUNDRED FORTY to SEVEN THOUSAND TIMES the allowed maximum. [See consultant report at p. 13] TCE in the sub-slab is important because from there it can migrate into the building, and wind up in the air that the kids breathe. Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. April 2011: More TCE testing. TCE once again is found in the Cafeteria and Hallway at up to FOUR TIMES the allowed maximum, and in the basement at SIXTY TIMES the allowed maximum. TCE is also found once again in the sub-slab, this time at levels underneath the Cafeteria and elsewhere at up to SIX THOUSAND, TWO HUNDRED TIMES the allowed maximum. [See consultant report at p. 13] Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. May 2011: While TCE levels in the Cafeteria and Hallway are found– but only right after ventilation–to be reduced, TCE levels in the basement actually INCREASE, with levels there reported to be nearly ONE HUNDRED TWENTY TIMES the allowed maximum. [See consultant report at p. 12] Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. In fact, as the parents are now painfully aware, they were not told anything at all until well after the school year was over, and the new school year about to start. What the hell is going on here?