For an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon, Liz Kleinberg listened to local, state and federal officials offer repeated assurances that all possible steps are being taken to protect her three children, all students at Osborn Hill School, from any harm from the building's PCB contamination.
The meeting -- one of two held Wednesday -- was organized in the wake of the discovery of unsafe, airborne PCB levels in some classrooms and the gymnasium at the Stillson Road elementary school. The toxic material, found in both window caulking and fireproofing material at the school, is considered a potential carcinogen.
"For them to tell us its not harmful -- there hasn't been enough testing done on humans to say," Kleinberg said.
The school district is working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to devise a plan to remediate the contamination, both short- and long-term.
However, of the school cannot be cleaned to a standard considered safe in time for the Aug. 30 first day of the new academic year, kindergartners though third-graders will be re-assigned to classes at the former Holy Family School and the fourth- and fifth-graders will go to the former St. Emery's School. The town's alternative high school, currently housed at St. Emery's, would be relocated to Fairfield Warde High School, under that scenario.
Kleinberg was not happy to learn that there are no plans to do any air-quality testing at either the Holy Family or St. Emery buildings. "They're going to stick us in another building and we don't know if it will have the exact same problem," she said.
She was one of about 200 people in total who attended the two Wednesday forums on the Osborn Hill contamination, where town and state officials repeatedly said PCB levels at the school, while a matter of concern, are not a cause for alarm.
Brian Toal, a toxicologist with the state Department of Public Health, told the afternoon session most people are exposed to low levels of PCBs every day. He said even in the Osborn Hill classroom with the highest PCB readings, "We're still 209 times below the level" where any negative health impact has been detected in laboratory animals. And the estimated cancer risk, he said, "is pretty low ... It's really not a big risk."
The PCB levels, local Health Director Sands Cleary said, are a cause for concern, but not a cause for alarm.
Window caulking at the school is being covered and walls being painted to encapsulate PCBs that could become airborne. The gym, thought to be the largest source of airborne PCBs because of spray-on fireproofing, has been completely sealed off from the rest of the building. It will remain sealed off if testing in other parts of the school shows PCB levels are low enough for students to attend classes there in late August or early September, according to Cleary and Superintendent of Schools David Title.
Principal Frank Arnone said alternatives are being explored to allow for physical education to continue should that be the case.
"You guys are not an anomaly," said Kimberly Tisa, PCB coordinator with the EPA. "We have this going on at so many schools in New England."
The federal EPA's PCB action level for elementary schools is 300 nanograms per cubic meter, except for kindergarten, where the level is 100. The highest level detected in a classroom at Osborn Hill was 590, while the gymnasium had a level of 2,900, according to Toal.
Clearly said the EPA's recommended action level is 1/300th the level known to cause health effects. He said prolonged, high-level exposure to PCBs affects people's health and those effects generally show up 20 to 30 years later. "Six years is chronic exposure," he said, referring to how long students attend elementary school, "but the levels at Osborn Hill have not been shown to cause any of the health effects we're talking about."
Title said a stone floor in the lobby, where unacceptably high levels of PCBs also were detected, was covered with a vinyl floor and the entire school has been painted. He said window caulk also is being sealed and ducts in the school are being cleaned.
Title said school officials have to decide by next Friday, Aug. 24, if Osborn Hill's 523 students will be allowed to attend classes in the Stillson Road this year. The decision on whether to move Osborn Hill students off-site will be based on impending test results of PCB levels, Title said. "We still think there's a good chance to have the school up and running by Aug. 30, minus the gym," he said.
If students attend classes at the alternate location, Arnone said lunch would be served in classrooms at Holy Family and in the gym at St. Emery's. Neither building has a separate library but books would be available in classrooms.
In either event, longer-term PCB remediation at Osborn Hill includes continued cleaning of the gym and replacing the windows, plans for which will require EPA approval, as well as town boards' approval of a funding request, Title said. He said he wants to have longer-term issues resolved by next summer.
After the nighttime meeting, Ellen Greenwald, whose daughter will be a fifth-grader at Osborn Hill, said the government should require regular testing of schools so that high PCB levels remain undetected unless a renovation is about to take place.
"How come we let it get to this point, these high levels, until we do construction? That's ridiculous," she said. "It should be tested annually. It should never be left to the point of when we do construction."
Earlier, Cleary said if town officials decide to test for PCBs in all of the town's schools, they would need to respond to test results in a timely fashion and have a plan in place.
Dana Kery, a District 8 Representative Town Meeting member and wife of Board of Education member Tim Kery, who will have three children in Osborn Hill School, said past exposure to PCBs at Osborn Hill is "not necessarily a great concern to me." She cited the statistic from Cleary that EPA action guidelines for PCBs are 1/300th the level found to affect a person's health.
Toal and Cleary said everyone has PCBs in their blood because the toxin being in the air and food, and Toal said a student exposed to the highest PCB level found in an Osborn Hill classroom would have a cancer risk of 2 in 1 million.
Toal said he does not think it would be worthwhile for Osborn Hill parents to have their children tested for PCBs. "PCB tests are there, but they're not going to tell you anything. Just that you've been exposed to PCBs like the rest of us," he said.