Bedford ParkWith additional reporting by Carl V. Lewis.

The Bronx New School (P.S. 51) had seen its share of typical childhood illnesses during its 23-year history. But ever since the city told parents in early August that their northwest Bronx building was contaminated with dangerous levels of an industrial toxin, each memory of a headache or nosebleed—plus one story of a former student who died of kidney failure—has caused added anxieties.

The news meant that for the last two decades, kindergartners through fifth graders at the school located in a former lamp factory at 3200 Jerome Avenue may have unwittingly inhaled daily doses of trichloroethylene (TCE), a metal degreaser that was recently declared to be a carcinogen to humans by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Department of Education officials knew as early as January, 2011 that the level of TCE contaminants found in its hallways were nearly 10 times above the current safe exposure standards set by New York State. Another test in March found TCE nearly 10,000 times above the safe level in the soil vapor below the first floor cafeteria. However, parents were not informed of the toxins for several more months, after the decision to transfer all P.S. 51's children three miles away to a Catholic school in Crotona had already been made.

Parents have only recently been privy to city records showing that the 3200 Jerome Avenue site had a nearly 60-year history of producing environmental toxins. In the years immediately before the site was renovated into a school, the property was placed into a monitoring database by the EPA for producing hazardous chemicals and waste.

Despite this, a “leasing loophole” made it possible for P.S. 51 as well as 31 other public schools located in leased sites around the city to remain untested for toxins for decades. State lawmakers are currently pushing for legislation that would close this gap and toughen air quality standards for TCE throughout New York. In the meantime, scientists are still uncertain about the real long-term hazards of TCE exposure.

“That’s the million dollar question,” says Dr. Geoffrey Collins, a pediatrician specializing in environmental health at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. “What are the health effects? I can see if it was my child in the school, I would have concerns.”

Parents fear long-term consequences

For most parents of the 200-plus students at The Bronx New School, a racially integrated learning center with a history of strong parental involvement, the hope is that their children’s lives will not be permanently harmed by their exposure to TCE.

Many were angered at being kept in the dark long after the city knew the TCE levels were dangerously high. “How dare you make us beg for information,” a former student's parent, Nicole Forbes, shouted at Chancellor Dennis Walcott during a public information session held at the Bronx Business School last October.

Her sister, Natasha Forbes, believes the toxins might have caused her son’s five-year-long struggle with unexplained migraines. “Doctors couldn’t give a concise diagnosis of what was wrong with him,” says Natasha, mother of 11-year-old Rodney. “Things made sense when we heard about the test results.”

Records of visits to the nurse since 2005 showed that student visits seeking medical care numbered upwards of 2,000 a school year. Nearly 3,000 visits were made in 2007 to 2008. Along with the routine cuts and bruises, students complained of coughs, wheezes, itchy eyes, headaches, vomiting and nausea. A memo written by school nurse Lynn Hendricks to supervisors in 2009 obtained by the New York Daily News revealed her concerns about “immunity issues” among students, as well as problems with the air conditioning and heating system in the building.

"I just had a lot of coughing at random times,” says 11-year-old Tsedale Forbes, a recent graduate of the school. “Once or twice I had headaches, and I had a lot of stomach pains.”

Tsedale’s mother says she noticed what seemed like an unusually high number of student illnesses at P.S. 51 even before parents found about the TCE contamination.

“There was a high volume of sicknesses – not a common cold, but headaches, stomachaches – among the children,” says Nicole Forbes. “We parents had discussed it among ourselves before, even before we knew about the toxins.”

The death of Brandon Harrison, a P.S. 51 alumnus who died of kidney failure at the age of 11, is the school’s most dramatic example of a student’s illness during its 20-year run on Jerome Avenue.

“He suddenly passed away due to kidney failure a year after he graduated from the school,” his aunt, Donele Harrison, president of the P.S. 51 Parent Teacher Association, says. “But it’s hard to prove any connection.” She declined to comment further on the issue.

P.S. 51 Principal Paul Smith, who is in his 11th year as principal of P.S. 51, declined to answer any questions regarding the history of student and staff health at his school. But in early December, Rhonda Rivera, a 50-year-old teacher's aide who started working at P.S. 51 in 1993, filed a lawsuit against the landlord, stating that the toxins caused her sicknesses. In 2009, Rivera was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer and had portions of her pancreas and spleen removed. She is undergoing chemotherapy at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx while maintaining her 19-year post at the school.

The court filings described the significant amount of time Rivera spent in the school basement and first-floor cafeteria, which contained the highest concentrations of TCE. She accused the site’s owner, Rinzler Family Limited Partnership, as well as its former industrial occupants, of recklessly exposing students and staff to toxins by failing to inform the education department of potential health risks from industrial chemicals.

"We hope the lawsuit will draw greater attention to former manufacturing facilities, to make sure the air is toxin-free," says Bernard Daskal, her lawyer. The property landlord as well as the site’s former industrial occupants could not be reached for comment.

Since August, a handful of parents have pulled their children out of P.S. 51. None have held school officials directly responsible for their children’s ill health, or had brought their concerns to the school or city’s education department prior to the TCE revelation, says Marcela Torres, one of the key P.S. 51 parent activists.

But for Kelly King Lewis, whose two daughters attended The Bronx New School until recently, the discovery of toxins on the Jerome Avenue campus confirmed her suspicions about the school environment.

Lewis says 8-year-old Saqirah began complaining of intense headaches two years ago, enough to compel Lewis to pull her out of P.S. 51 even before the TCE contamination was announced to the parents. “Her headaches stopped soon after she left,” Lewis says.

Her other daughter, 12-year-old Kya, also suffered from headaches. “But Saqirah’s were more severe,” says Lewis, who is now spearheading the campaign for a database of past and former students to track possible TCE-related illnesses. “Her first-grade class was directly across the cafeteria, where they found high levels of toxins. I never imagined at first that it could’ve had anything to do with the environment she was in at school.”

Leasing loophole meant no testing

The student and staff exposure to industrial toxins could have been avoided if it were not for the Department of Education’s “leasing loophole”, a gap in policy that allows schools on rented sites to bypass the toxic assessment of school buildings required for those that stand on city-owned property. The School Construction Authority discovered traces of TCE in P.S. 51 only because the city’s 20-year lease was up this year, and renewal procedures required an assessment of toxins on the property. The DOE previously said they had no earlier indication of environmental problems at the school.

“The DOE has already completed nearly 70 lease renewals since 2003,” says DOE spokesperson Margie Feinberg. “Other than P.S. 51, there have been no environmental conditions found in any of these leased buildings that caused any concerns.”

Originally leased in 1991, the Jerome Avenue property was refurbished into a school by the landlord. The city paid the tab for the renovation of the 18,500-square-foot building as well as the annual rent, the most recent of which was $506,000 last year.

The founders of P.S. 51 say they were unaware of what kinds of industries operated on the Jerome Avenue site. Started in the late 1980s by parents who wanted a racially integrated public school, The Bronx New School was bold for its time. Parents worked with teachers and education officials in the northwest Bronx’s District 10 to shape an alternative school that emphasized hands-on work and a creative curriculum. Students were taught in mixed age groups, using projects rather than workbooks.

Today, the school has maintained its unique curriculum and some of its racial diversity among its 228 students. Hispanic students make up 55 percent of the student population, and black students about 39 percent. Parents praised the tradition of integrated learning as well as the school’s academics. The Department of Education gave it an “A” last year.

“I like it that it’s a small, diverse school,” says Harrison, whose daughter, 9-year-old Chaunci Niles, is a current student. “The social needs of the students are addressed. There’s no prejudice.”

It first opened in September 1988 to 77 kindergartners through third graders in the basement of the Fordham Methodist Church on Marion Avenue in the Bronx. Plans were for the school to grow by one grade each year, so parents began immediately to search for a permanent, larger site.

“The district had no place for us,” says Beverly Falk, professor of early childhood education at the City University of New York and The Bronx New School’s founding teacher-director.

“The school was steadily growing after three years, and we needed a new location,” says Falk, who wrote about P.S. 51’s early years in her book, “Teaching the Way Children Learn.”

“We did not want to rely on the Board of Education to find us a site,” she says.

After searching through the notoriously overcrowded district, parents and teachers found an empty building on Jerome Avenue, in what Falk says everyone told her was an automotive repair garage. The city building department gave the go ahead to renovate it as a school. “We questioned them thoroughly about the site because it was in an industrial location,” Falk says. “The city assured us it was safe.”

Calls for greater transparency

Earlier this year, the DOE released a report that included details of the Jerome Avenue site’s extensive 60-year history of industrial activity and production of environmental waste. Between 1940 and 1950, it was first used as a garage for automotive purposes, and then for manufacturing after 1957. In 1976, Nessen Lamps Inc. opened operations. The report found that four 550-gallon gasoline tanks were buried beneath the building from 1945 to 1992, right before the property was renovated as a school. From 1982 to 1987, a few years before the Department of Education leased it, the EPA placed the property in a regulatory database to monitor the “generation of unknown wastes” at the site.

A hazardous waste profile prepared early this fall by Toxics Targeting Inc., a toxin-mapping company, revealed that while the site was still a lamp factory in 1987, 130 gallons of “halogenated solvents used in degreasing” were generated at the property and reported to the Department of Environmental Conservation. TCE is one of the most common of these halogenated solvents (compounds that contain atoms like chlorine or iodine) used in industrial metal cleaning. In 1986, the site produced 218 gallons of these solvents. As recently as 2006, the report found that 75 gallons of halogenated solvents were generated at a pumping station across the street from the school.

In September, the DOE had conducted emergency testing on the remaining 31 schools on leased sites as a precautionary measure, following an “Environmental Due Diligence” plan that would immediately inform parents of the presence of any toxins. All the other locations, upon initial review, appeared to meet state guidelines, say officials. But those results have yet to be made public, and it is not clear when they will be available.

“Once the reports are completed, we will post them on our website,” Feinberg says. “We have backpacked letters home to parents in the meantime.”

Activists have been pushing the city to close the “leasing loophole” for years, along with demanding that the Department of Education release the results of environmental testing for all leased schools.

“We want the DOE to realize the cat’s out of the bag,” says Dawn Phillip, an attorney for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “There’s not only a lack of adequate, independent environmental testing to make sure our school children are safe, but a lack of transparency that’s simply unacceptable.”

In mid-December, the City Council’s Education Committee voted to pass two bills, one which requires the DOE to disclose the presence of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in schools to parents within seven days of their discovery. The other would require the city to provide annual progress reports on the removal of PCB toxins within schools.

At least one other New York City public school had to be moved this fall because of concerns over potential toxins. Children at P.S. 143 in Corona, Queens, were relocated just three weeks into the new school year after officials discovered water leaks, falling ceiling tiles, and asbestos contamination in the school.

Phillip says DOE officials essentially crafted the latest round of tests on the remaining leased school sites to meet minimal state guidelines for toxins such as TCE. This does not necessarily mean the other schools are safe. “They’re not using an independent environmental consulting firm for these tests, and it’s troubling,” Phillip says.

Several teachers at P.S. 51 turned down requests for interviews (including Rivera, the teacher’s aide who is suing). But the United Federation of Teachers pledged to back greater transparency in public records about environmental testing on leased school buildings.

"We have serious questions about why it took the DOE so long to close the building for students and staff," said Chris Proctor, director of the UFT safety and health department, in a statement.

TCE's health impact unclear

At the end of September, the Environmental Protection Agency listed TCE as a carcinogenic substance for the first time. The findings were based on a multi-year assessment done with animal testing that concluded chronic exposure to TCE increases the risks of cancer by affecting the central nervous and immune system, the kidneys and liver, and male reproductive organs.

“The evidence points to carcinogenicity in humans,” says Mark Maddaloni, a toxicologist with the EPA.

However, it is not clear if the cases of sick students throughout the years, as well as Rivera’s or Brandon’s illnesses, can be linked to TCE. The uncertainty is due to the tricky way TCE interacts with the human body. TCE is one of the most common industrial chemicals found in the environment. It is used in metal degreasing, paint stripping, and varnishing. TCE is clear and colorless. When people inhale air tainted with it, the body eliminates most of it within a day or two.

“The bottom line is, we don’t know the health effects because we don’t know the [amount of exposure]*,” says Dr. Collins, the pediatrician with the environmental health unit at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, who has handled several phone calls from P.S. 51 parents on referral from the city’s health department. He says that finding high levels of TCE at the school at any given moment doesn’t necessarily mean a student may have been chronically exposed to the chemical.

An initial test commissioned by the city’s School Construction Authority on January 21 discovered TCE levels in the air as high as 10 times the current acceptable level set by the state for safe exposure. Those levels were recorded in the school’s hallways and cafeteria. Later tests conducted in March and April confirmed the result, as well as finding TCE levels at more than 10,000 times higher than the safe exposure standards in the soil vapor beneath the first-floor school cafeteria.

Dr. Collins says a blood test could track traces of TCE. However, since the human body rapidly breaks down the chemical, the test would not be useful in determining any measurable health effects. It only gives a positive or negative signal for TCE’s presence in the patient's blood*.

A June 2011 report prepared for the DOE revealed that on May 13 and 14, AKRF Engineering, an independent environmental and engineering planning company, recommended ventilating P.S. 51 to see if the TCE levels could be brought down. The school opened windows overnight and operated a roof fan. All of this was done without knowledge of the parents, staff, or students who continued to inhale the contaminated air during classes.

Adding to the parents’ frustration is the fact that the city has yet to determine the exact origin of TCE at the old site. The chemicals were found in the ground water and soil vapor below the school’s surface, but air quality health specialists have suggested another possible source for the contamination.

“It is conceivable that instead of coming from the lamp operations, it came from the boiler,” says Lenny Siegel, the executive director of the California-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight who has been meeting with the P.S. 51 parents. Siegel says that he had not personally inspected the Jerome Avenue site. However, he says that boilers in general are frequently cleaned with TCE, which could indicate why the levels of TCE in the basement were found at much higher levels than in the rest of the school.

Regardless of the source, Siegel argues that standards set by New York for air toxins like TCE are much too low, and could endanger many more people beyond the students at P.S. 51.

A new look at 'acceptable levels'

In New York, the acceptable standard for TCE in the air is set at 5 micrograms per cubic meter. This is nearly four times the level of acceptable exposure set by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and nearly 12 times the level of acceptable exposure set by the national EPA. The last time the state’s health department revisited these guidelines was back in 2006.

To add to the growing mountain of parental anxieties are fresh concerns about the air at The Bronx New School’s new home on Crotona Avenue. An indoor air quality survey commissioned by the New York City School Construction Authority in August found perchloroethylene (PCE), a common chlorinated compound used widely by the dry-cleaning industry, in the basement cafeteria. Like TCE at the old site, the source of the contamination could not be determined. The level of PCE found is significantly lower than the acceptable level of exposure set by New York State, and poses no danger to the students and staff in the building. However, Siegel argues again that the standards set by the state are too low.

“The concentrations are low enough that the state of New York doesn’t consider them a problem,” says Siegel, a California resident. “If it were where I live, it would be.” The level of PCE found inside P.S. 51’s new site is three times the maximum level for safe exposure set in California. New York State’s standard for PCE is nearly 243 times higher than California’s standard.

In December 2009, 30 environmental and health organizations, including the Breast Cancer Fund, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, and the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York wrote a letter to the state health department to request that air quality standards for PCE be harmonized with EPA’s standard level. The state responded by saying they were going to revisit the guidelines in 2010. However, the guidelines have yet to be changed.

Weak standards for TCE have long been an issue in New York. Pending legislation proposes to make standards more stringent. In 2006, the New York Assembly argued that the current acceptable exposure level set by the state was unsupported by adequate science. In 2008, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo introduced legislation to have the state adopt more protective standards for exposure to TCE. The legislation is currently under review.

“The affects of TCE are widespread and significant,” says Lupardo in a statement. “We’ve waited over a decade for action in Washington, and now we can’t afford to wait any longer. New York needs to take the lead in adopting stronger TCE standards.”

Wary parents, and a new home

About 150 parents attended the first DOE information session in August. Now, about 45 are keeping a vigilant eye on developments, giving themselves the moniker “PS 51 Parents United”.

“There are about 10 of us in the core group,” says parent organizer Marcela Torres. “People don’t usually come to meetings anymore because they’re busy, but they do ask for updates through email.”

Passions may have cooled, but parents are still insistent that Walcott keep his promise to develop a database of current students and alumni for medical monitoring. The registry would allow health specialists to assess alumni and former students for illnesses. It would then keep track of across-the-board sickness patterns and make the state take responsibility for medical treatment, if further testing provides conclusive evidence that TCE caused the health problems of students.

“I just want to make sure that there won’t be any surprises for my daughter years from now,” says Nicole Forbes. “The registry should ensure there’s enough documentation to make someone accountable in the event that something does turn out wrong.”

In the meantime, P.S. 51 students are slowly getting used to their new campus in Crotona. Principal Smith admitted the school lost about 20 students in the transition, including a wheelchair-bound student, because of transportation issues. But on the whole, he says, the children are pleased with their current situation.

“The transition has been pretty smooth,” Smith says. “The children are happy to have a gym.”

The facilities at the school include a spacious gym and an auditorium, which the old campus on Jerome Avenue didn’t have. Officials signed a new 20-year lease for the site in August, making it P.S. 51’s permanent home.

Many parents still hope to meet face to face with Walcott to address the long-term concerns about TCE at the old school, although he already met with some parents to deal with day-to-day issues at the new campus.

“Of course we’ll still discuss our concerns about the old school,” says Umali Peña as she watched her 7-year-old daughter Jayden bounce a ball on the basketball court. “But the bottom line is, at least we got Walcott to talk to us. It’s a good start.”

But for Norwood mother Marisol Carrero, whose son attended the Bronx New School for six years, no amount of reassurance from school board officials can put her mind at rest.

“I’m going to have anxiety for the rest of my life about how my son will be affected,” Carrero says. “It’s not something that just goes away.”

* these passages were altered after publication to correct a reference to the "nervous system" to instead read "patient's blood" and to clarify a quote