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Local News

December 15, 2011

Fuming over PCB levels

Peabody: Parents say they weren't informed, school says there's no health risk

PEABODY — Some parents at Burke Elementary School are irate after learning from their children that classrooms at the school were evacuated Monday due to high levels of an airborne toxin.

School officials have known for about a month that polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in two classrooms at the school tested higher than acceptable. A test was conducted in October in preparation for replacing the school's windows next summer.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the PCB standards for children ages 6 to 12 is .30 or below. The October test revealed levels of .78 and .62 in the two second-floor classrooms. A follow-up test in November — conducted after remediation efforts were made — revealed lower but still elevated PCB levels of .32 and .37.

PCB, once used in window putty, light ballasts, electronics, adhesives and more, is now banned from consumer products after being shown to cause health problems after prolonged high exposure.

Despite the PCB test results, the EPA has told the school district that there is no immediate danger and it is not necessary to close the school, according to Superintendent Herb Levine.

"The EPA says if you reach that (.30) standard, you have to start paying attention and take steps to remediate that," Levine said.

"Some parents have misinterpreted that as the danger point. This is not asbestos," he said. To suffer ill effects from PCB, "it literally takes years of constant exposure."

Some parents at the school, however, are upset.

"I am irate that the school is still open at this point. It's ludicrous what they've let students and teachers be exposed to," parent Kim Quintal said, also referring to the renovations to the roof and boiler, which have been ongoing at the school since the beginning of the year.

The school was shut down for a day in September when workers found asbestos while removing a nonfunctioning chimney. After air-quality tests revealed no problems, the school was reopened.

Teachers were notified of the elevated PCB levels on Monday morning, the same day school officials made the decision to relocate students in those two classrooms into another part of the building. Parents were not notified of the problem until Tuesday evening, however.

"My 11-year-old daughter told me after school on Monday, 'By the way, there's something wrong with the air quality in the school and we had to move out of the room,'" angry parent Peg Sylvanowicz said. "It took me awhile to process that."

A few parents found the failure to communicate the test results right away worse than the PCB levels.

"The mayor and superintendent took it upon themselves not to share this information with us," parent Keith Doucette said. "This is not only about the safety of our kids, it's the way the city and School Department are being run. What else are we being kept in the dark about?"

Staying home

Peabody School Committee members were also unaware of test results — or even that tests had been conducted — until their meeting Tuesday night. Levine said he wanted to be sure the October results were accurate before making them public, so he waited until a second round of test results were in.

"Our experts said they didn't know if the values were accurate, because we just finished a major construction," Levine said. "Because of that, and after discussions with the mayor, we decided not to publish that information to the public because we were not sure what we were talking about, or if the numbers were even accurate."

But some parents said they should have been told anyway.

"I feel like there is something very wrong with having the information and not sharing it," parent Rachel DellaCroce said. "I am sick to my stomach. I should not have to be sending my kids to that school."

At least two of the parents have vowed to keep their children home.

"My kid has been home for the last two days, and she doesn't want to be. She wants to be at school with her friends," Sylvanowicz said. "But I am a nurse and I am not comfortable with this, and I don't know what else to do."

Levine said 16 children absent from Burke yesterday, which is on par with an average day.

"There is no panic except in a certain group of parents," Levine said. "It is overreaction and possible misunderstanding of the information that has ruled the day for some folks."

What now?

The city will spend up to $25,000 to test the entire school on Monday night. Those results should be known by the school's winter break.

"If necessary, I have a plan to shut the school down and move all students to a series of schools by classrooms. If necessary, I will move the kindergartners to a West Peabody school as a unit," Levine said in a letter to parents. "I do not believe that either scenario will be necessary, but am prepared to act immediately after scanning the next testing results."

Levine said yesterday that the EPA would make the decision on whether to close the building, and that he would be "very surprised" if the test results were high enough for that to happen.

School Committee member Beverley Anne Griffin Dunne said not informing parents before relocating the classrooms was the wrong move — Levine agreed — but she said the danger to students is overblown. At a School Committee meeting and in subsequent interviews, parents have claimed that teachers and students have had health-related issues as a result of working in the building. Dunne disputes that.

"There is no evidence of anybody being sick in that building any more than any other school building in the city of Peabody or the state of Massachusetts," Dunne said. "People (at the meeting) were saying a lot of things that are not true."

Moving the classrooms because of the elevated PCB tests was the right move, Dunne said, but was not done because the children were in danger.

"It was a proactive, cautionary move. Even the EPA said we didn't have to do that," she said. "We're trying to find out what's going on and protect kids at the same time."

Still, Steve Sylvanowicz's daughter is staying home until they figure it out.

"I don't want her exposed, even a little bit," he said.

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