Environmental Test Results for City’s Schools Must Now be Made Public

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.

Good News for Nugget Fans

If the thought of a crispy, golden-brown chicken nugget makes your mouth water, rest assured you are not alone. Billions of nuggets are consumed in the United States each year, many of them by kids as part of a school lunch program.

And now, there’s a nugget of good news for the chicken-lovers among us: six of the largest U.S. school districts — including New York City — announced today that they will seek to buy only antibiotic-free chicken for their school lunch programs.

The group — which also includes Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County, and Orlando — makes up a coalition called the Urban School Food Alliance that works to leverage their immense purchasing power in order to “drive quality up and costs down while incorporating sound environmental practices.”

In other words, they push for better, healthier, more sustainable food in schools across the country — and because they represent such a large portion of the school food market, food suppliers tend to listen. Consider this: New York City public schools serve 860,000 meals every day, and together these six districts include 2.6 million kids.

That’s a lot of nuggets.

Free-range meat chickens. Photo credit: USDA

According to the Alliance, the new standards for the districts require that all chicken products must come from birds that were never fed antibiotics. The requirements also stipulate an all-vegetarian diet for the chickens, as well as humane living conditions.

These changes come at a time of increased awareness about the dangers of antibiotic misuse in livestock production, and concerns about “superbugs,” bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States go to healthy food animals. This practice often compensates for less-than-ideal living conditions and to make chickens, pigs, and cows grow faster.

According to NRDC, this overuse also “kills off weak bacteria and creates the perfect environment for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to multiply and thrive. When the meat industry routinely misuses and overuses antibiotics in this way, it threatens public health when essential drugs no longer work to treat infections.”

Now if only they could do something about that 40 percent thing.

City Schools Get Scrappy As Compost Collection Expands

In the eternal battle to get kids to eat their greens, the stakes just got a little…lower? Last month, New York City announced a dramatic expansion of its school organics collection program, meaning that what doesn’t feed kids could eventually feed plants instead.

Starting this academic year, 720 schools across the city will be composting food waste, including every public school in Manhattan and Staten Island. That’s an enormous increase from the previous year’s 358 schools, and the Department of Sanitation hopes to have all of the city’s educational facilities on board by 2016-17.

Scooping Up Savings

New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day (that’s 40 million pounds!). A large portion of that is generated by the public school system, which has more than 1,800 buildings spread out through the city.

Forty percent of school waste comes directly from the cafeteria.

Dealing with this output has enormous financial costs — NYC spends approximately $100 per ton to dispose of trash in landfills — and the process of getting it to its final destination is fraught with health, environmental, and social issues.

While there’s no doubt that having kids actually eat their veggies would be the best possible way to reduce school waste, it has become clear that organics collection and composting are also pretty good options.

“We realized that if we could divert that waste, we could not only save the city money, but we could also make an extraordinary environmental impact and make a statement about recycling.” says John Shea, chief executive officer at the New York City Department of Education.

Depending on where the participating school is located, the organic material is picked up by city sanitation trucks and taken to compost facilities in Staten Island, upstate New York or Delaware. From there, the waste decomposes into nutrient-rich soil that is then sold to farmers and landscapers.

Eventually, the city will also send compost to the Newtown Creek digester eggs, which turn garbage into natural gas.

DSNY claims that the cost of composting organics is 40 to 60 percent less than disposing of regular trash, thanks to the resale of the end product. Once the city’s entire school system is participating, administrators expect that they will be able to negotiate even lower costs with the facilities that receive the material.

Color-Coding and Hands-on Training

Compost. Photo credit: zen Sutherland | Compost collection bins. Photo credit: NYC.gov

Implementing a composting system in public school — where kids often have less than 30 minutes just to scarf their sandwich — is not for the faint of heart.

The process begins in the cafeteria, where students sort their food into color-coded bins: one for trash (plastic bags, foam cups and wrappers), another for recyclables (metal, glass, plastic and milk cartons), another for liquids (milk, juice, water) and finally, a bin for food scraps.

Some schools utilize “green teams” of students or parents who don latex gloves and wield plastic grabbers to sort wayward objects.

But as one might imagine, the real key is training. “We have been working closely with the NYC Dept of Education to systematically train the Deputy Directors of Facilities who in turn train their custodians, and similarly SchoolFood managers,” says Mary Post, Public Information & Outreach Specialist at the DSNY. “We also provide regular trainings for Sustainability Coordinators in each school; and we’re working with the unions to present trainings to their members.”

The NYC Recycles website also hosts a plethora of resources and information for schools that are implementing composting programs, as does GrowNYC.

Trial by Pilot

Middle school students enjoying lunch. Photo credit: USDA

The program that could eventually impact the way more than a million students across New York City eat (and discard) their lunch got its start in a much more modest way. In early 2012, a group of five public school parents launched a completely PTA-funded compost pilot in eight District 3 schools on the Upper West Side.

The parents—each of whom chair their school’s “Green Teams”—worked to implement the program in the school cafeterias by training students and staff on composting basics, including how to separate trash from meat, dairy, and kitchen scraps.

They also kept detailed records on how much compost, garbage, and recycling was generated at each school.

At the end of the program, which lasted for exactly four months, the parents found that they were diverting 450 pounds of food waste from landfill every single day — and reducing the volume of cafeteria garbage by 85 percent. In real terms, this meant decreasing the number of garbage bags used in their cafeterias from 54 to eight.

The following academic year the city took over the program, and has expanded it each year since.