The City’s Department of Education must now inform parents promptly of any potential health threats to children in public school buildings or at proposed school sites. Mayor Bill de Blasio will sign City Council legislation into law today that will require the DOE to notify parents within ten days of any test results they receive that exceed environmental health standards.

Irregular test results for the buildings themselves, and the site where the school is located, must be reported to parents, staff and local community leaders. This includes air, soil, water and indoor environment assessments.

The DOE must also post any irregular test results “conspicuously” on its website within ten days of receiving them. Parents and teachers will be able to search by school, community school district, council district and borough.

The law comes in the wake of the closure of a Bronx school -P.S. 51- after it was disclosed that students and teachers had reportedly been exposed to high levels of trichloroethylene for up to six years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that trichloroethylene is associated with several types of cancer in humans.

“Students, parents, and staff have the right to know if their school environment is safe and free of airborne toxins,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx in a statement.

“This legislation provides a way to improve school safety and increase…[DOE] transparency. It makes environmental information more readily accessible and it gives the school community the assurance that they are in a healthy and enriching environment,” Cabrera said.

The legislation also applies to charter schools located in DOE operated buildings.

All Test Results to be Posted on DOE’s Website

According to the City Council, the DOE must now post an annual report on-line regarding the “results of environmental inspections and environmental reports concerning any public school.”

The bill just signed by the mayor requires the DOE to provide:

(1) a summary of any inspections or reports for the prior school year including, but not limited to, inspections of groundwater, air, gas, soil and dust;

(2) information regarding any investigative or remedial work conducted in schools to address the presence of any hazardous substances;

(3) information regarding the timeframe within which the remedial action was taken, when parents and employees were notified, and whether the condition was resolved; and

(4) an update on the DOE’s overall progress on improving air quality in schools.

The legislation appears to exclude reporting requirements for asbestos, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s). We are checking with the City Council now to determine if that is the case because public reporting regarding those substances is already required by local law.

Finding a Problem but Saying Nothing?

According to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the case of P.S. 51 in the Bronx is a stark example of the need for environmental testing and public reporting.

P.S. 51 was sited in a former lamp factory on Jerome Avenue and the City did no air testing when they first occupied the building, asserts NYLPI. Over a decade later, in 2011, the City tested the air when the DOE’s lease was up for renewal and found the presence of toxins “well in excess of State health standards.”

The DOE kept children and staff in the school for another 6 months, never alerting them to the test results, says NYLPI. The point of the new law is to make sure that cases like P.S. 51 “never happen again,” the organization said.

  • mcspencer

    This is promising. Are environmental inspections automatic (say, a yearly thing whether or not someone reports a possible problem)? Or does the legislation only stipulate that any inspections that occur must be made public? Thanks.

  • Gavin Kearney

    Good question. Some testing in schools is routine and some testing is triggered by specific events (e.g. around renovations, leasing of new buildings, etc.). The bill doesn’t require DOE to test any more than they currently do, but it does require that test results be made public and that where results exceed existing health standards that the DOE affirmatively notify parents and personnel of the result.