December 2010, Week 2


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Thu, 9 Dec 2010 22:58:15 -0500
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Social Experimenting on the Poor - Today in New York

1. To Test Housing Program, Some Are Denied Aid
   (Cara Buckley in the New York Times)
2. Will the DOE Test for PCBs? 
   (Eleanor J. Bader in The Brooklyn Rail)


To Test Housing Program, Some Are Denied Aid

By Cara Buckley

New York Times

December 9, 2010


It has long been the standard practice in medical testing:
Give drug treatment to one group while another, the control
group, goes without.

Now, New York City is applying the same methodology to
assess one of its programs to prevent homelessness. Half of
the test subjects - people who are behind on rent and in
danger of being evicted - are being denied assistance from
the program for two years, with researchers tracking them to
see if they end up homeless.

The city's Department of Homeless Services said the study
was necessary to determine whether the $23 million program,
called Homebase, helped the people for whom it was intended.
Homebase, begun in 2004, offers job training, counseling
services and emergency money to help people stay in their

But some public officials and legal aid groups have
denounced the study as unethical and cruel, and have called
on the city to stop the study and to grant help to all the
test subjects who had been denied assistance.

"They should immediately stop this experiment," said the
Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. "The city
shouldn't be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable."

As controversial as the experiment has become, New York City
is among a number of governments, philanthropies and
research groups turning to so-called randomized controlled
trials to evaluate social welfare programs.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development
recently started an 18-month study in 10 cities and counties
to track up to 3,000 families who land in homeless shelters.
Families will be randomly assigned to programs that put them
in homes, give them housing subsidies or allow them to stay
in shelters. The goal, a HUD spokesman, Brian Sullivan,
said, is to find out which approach most effectively ushered
people into permanent homes...

To read the full story, go to:


Will the DOE Test for PCBs?

by Eleanor J. Bader

The Brooklyn Rail
December 2010 - January 2011 issue

[submitted to Portside by the author]


You've got to hand it to the public relations firm hired by
the New York City Department of Education. The tag line
they've come up with-"Children First. Always."-is exactly
what a school system should be championing.

The Cathie Black controversy aside, critics point to the
fallacy of the slogan, citing ongoing problems in the school
system, including overcrowded classrooms, insufficient
supplies, and the Department of Education's capitulation to
the standardized testing craze that's been sweeping the
nation. But as important as these issues are, recent studies
confirming that many city schools are being poisoned by
degrading Polychlorinated Biphenyls-a.k.a. PCBs-may soon
push these concerns to a back burner.

Although you can't see, taste, or smell PCBs, the man-made
chemicals are a known carcinogen, which is why they were
outlawed in 1978, making them one of only three toxic
substances to be completely banned by the government. Like
asbestos and lead paint, the health risks associated with
PCBs are terrifying.

Prior to 1978, PCBs played a key role in U.S. construction.
Effective, non-flammable insulators, PCBs were routinely
used in caulk, fluorescent light ballasts, and as a coating
on bricks. They have also been found in adhesives,
fiberglass, floor finishes, oil-based paint, plastic, and
ventilation systems.

In fact, the substance was once so ubiquitous that activists
estimate that as many as 750 of New York City's 1,600 public
schools-234 of them in Brooklyn-are possibly contaminated.
What this means is that a large swath of the city's 1.1
million students, as well as 80,000 teachers and 55,000
staff people, may be putting their health at risk each and
every time they enter a classroom.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs are
"a persistent organic pollutant," meaning that it is
possible to detect their presence in air, sediment, soil,
and water decades after a product containing them was used.
Anything exceeding 50 parts per million poses a danger, the
EPA continues, and the only way to know if they're present
is to test areas where contamination is possible.

"PCBs may have serious potential effects on the immune
systems of exposed individuals," an EPA factsheet reports.
In addition to cancer, numerous illnesses have been linked
to all chlorinated hydrocarbons, including PCBs-chloracne;
rashes; diabetes; liver damage; irregular menses and altered
estrogen levels; headaches; fatigue; coughs; changes in
thyroid levels; poor cognitive development; learning
deficits; and the Epstein-Barr virus among them.

Activists throughout New York state credit Daniel Lefkowitz,
the parent of a former student at French Hill Elementary
School in Yorktown Heights, with getting the anti-PCB ball
rolling.  After reading a 2004 article in Environmental
Health Perspectives that documented the presence of PCBs in
one-third of the 24 buildings that were inspected, Lefkowitz
began to wonder whether the findings were a fluke, or if his
son's Westchester County school might be similarly polluted.

Miranda Massie, Litigation Director at New York Lawyers for
the Public Interest (NYLPI), recalls,"It took a long time,
but this dad pushed the state's Department of Environmental
Conservation to force the district to test the school and
then launch a partial remediation to fix the problem they
discovered." By 2008, Massie says, NYLPI was deeply immersed
in organizing to protect people from PCBs, working in
coalition with dozens of groups, including New York
Communities for Change, the New York Committee for
Occupational Safety and Health, the Service Employees
International Union, Nos Quedamos, Earthjustice, the New
York Public Interest Research Group, and the Center for
Health, Environment and Justice.

"NYLPI filed an Intent to Sue notice against the Department
of Education in March, 2009," Massie says. "After this, DOE
and EPA started talking to each other. When they agreed to
do a pilot study in New York City public schools, we
volunteered to suspend our lawsuit pending the study
results." A Consent Agreement was signed on January 19,
2010, after the City promised to evaluate PCB levels in five
schools: P.S. 178 in the Bronx, P.S. 199 in Manhattan, P.S.
309 in Brooklyn, P.S. 183 in Queens, and P.S. 3 in Staten
Island. The goal was clear: The studies would measure PCB
levels in air, dust, and soil and simultaneously determine
the most effective ways to reduce exposure.

During the summer of 2010, four rounds of tests were
conducted at three of the five schools: P.S. 178, P.S. 199,
and P.S. 309. The results revealed excessive PCB levels in
all of them. You might have expected panic to ensue, but it
did not. Instead, a statement released by the EPA in early
October downplayed the problem: "The levels of PCBs found in
the three schools do not pose an immediate health risk in
the short term. We will continue working with the City to
ensure that students, teachers, and school staff throughout
New York City are protected, and that any needed repairs or
renovations to address PCB problems are conducted in ways
that protect everyone who works in NYC school buildings."

The DOE is even more circumspect about the issue. As the
department's press secretary, Natalie Ravitz, wrote in an
email, "Right now we are in the middle of a pilot program
with the EPA, and while we are gaining valuable information,
we don't yet have the final results of the testing and
remediation work done this summer. During the pilot project-
which was initially focused on building caulk-we discovered
old lighting ballasts were an additional source of PCBs.
That's why we spent $3 million replacing all of the lighting
fixtures at two schools. While most PCB levels came down,
some rooms actually had higher PCB levels after we replaced
the ballasts. So we don't have all the answers yet...We
believe it would be irresponsible to move forward with a
citywide plan-which potentially carries a billion dollar
price tag-before we have better information and complete the
pilot project."

Ravitz's email adds that the DOE intends to examine the
remaining two schools during the summer of 2011, something
Massie and other activists consider too little too late.
"The Department of Education says they're conducting an
adequate pilot study and say they've done more than other
school districts around the country to assess and remedy PCB
contamination," Massie says. "That's true, but we still
think they should be doing more. The results of this
summer's study were alarming. There may be no immediate risk
to health but there are serious long-term risks to kids and
school employees."

David Newman, industrial hygienist at the New York Committee
for Occupational Safety and Health, agrees. "The data
constitute a red flag and warrant a more comprehensive and
rapid response," he says.

But what to do? While the EPA assures us that nothing needs
to be done immediately, activists are demanding that every
school built or renovated between 1950 and 1978 be
evaluated-a demand that has won the support of numerous
state lawmakers and City Council members. They're also
demanding that the city create an emergency protocol for the
safe removal of contaminated light fixtures, caulk, and
other PCB-laden products. Furthermore, they want all
ventilation systems tested and those deemed faulty repaired.
Then there's the issue of process, and parents, lawyers,
lawmakers, and community activists are demanding that the
DOE operate with transparency-providing concerned parties
with a school-by-school account of PCB levels along with a
detailed game-plan for remedying the problem. Lastly, they
expect to be included in the development of all future
policies on school health and safety.

Coordinated by New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the
activists concede that they have barely scratched the
surface of a problem that goes far beyond the city's
borders. Yet as the first major locale to address PCB
contamination, New York City is setting a precedent. NYCC
members say that researchers now can begin to investigate
likely PCB fallout-from skyrocketing learning disabilities
to increased childhood cancers. The potential linkages will
likely indicate a problem of unprecedented proportions.

This past June, an EPA report hinted at the enormity of the
crisis. Entitled PCBs in Caulk: Evaluation of Mitigation
Methods and Source Characterization,the document estimates
that the cost of removing PCBs from every building in the
U.S. that is contaminated will be between $150-200 billion.
And that's before we factor in the cost of special education
and medical care for those affected-but as every parent can
attest, the clean-up is really a small price to pay.

For more information on the campaign to clean-up PCBs in the
schools, contact NY Communities for Change, 2-4 Nevins
Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217, 347.410.6919,

[Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She
writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on
rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to
feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive
and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.]


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