Air tests at PS 65 reveal no signs of contaminants

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Extensive environmental tests performed at PS 65 in Ozone Park after parents complained the school was making their children sick came back negative for contaminants, Board of Education officials said Tuesday.

More than 300 parents turned out for a meeting Tuesday night at the school and were told by city and state officials that the building was safe for children. But the results did little to calm most parents, who contend the school at 103-22 99th St. is making their children suffer from headaches, nausea and sore throats.

Parents were up in arms over news reports that carbon dioxide levels in the air at the school were too high and the groundwater beneath PS 65 was contaminated by a cancer-causing agent.

“The bottom line is we have sampled the air here and sampled the drinking water and so far the results have been absolutely fine,” Bernard Orlan, director of environmental health and safety for the Board of Ed, told the meeting.

The tests showed that traces of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene in the air were below detection levels, David Klasfeld, deputy chancellor of operations for the board, said at the meeting. Sampling for other harmful organic substances and asbestos were also negative, he said.

Tests for carbon dioxide showed slightly elevated levels in some rooms, but the results were well below the threshold for the situation to be considered a health and safety issue, school officials said.

Manhattan attorney Peter Ronai said he had been retained by a group of 11 parents who plan to conduct their own environmental sampling of the school to represent their interests.

A representative of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing PS 65’s teachers, said his group was confident the building was safe.

During the emotional two-hour meeting, which was attended by Borough President Helen Marshall and Councilman Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), parents were given a chance to ask questions of city and state experts. One after another, they walked up to a microphone and told the officials their children were suffering from dizziness, headaches, nausea and rashes.

“If everything is negative in the school, how do you explain so many kids with the same problems?” asked Will Feliciano, a parent.

But Mary Otano, another parent, said her kids have had no problems. “My children have been here since ‘97 and have never been sick,” said told the gathering.

Klasfeld said the state Department of Environmental Conservation found TCE, a cancer-causing chemical, 35 feet below ground in 1996 when the school was being built on the site of a former airplane parts factory. Richard Gardineer, regional remediation engineer for the DEC, which conducted tests in 1996 and again in 1999, said the school is safe because the contaminant is far below the ground and has no way to reach the air.

In January, the DEC labeled nearby Ozone Industries a Class 2 site, which means it posed a significant threat to public health that required action, though not immediate action, said Gardineer. PS 65 is located in the groundwater’s path, he said.

“The state agency is saying it’s not serious,” said Board of Ed spokeswoman Catie Marshall. “But meanwhile we’ve got parents that are very frightened and worried that by sending their kids to school they’re putting them in danger.”

The round of testing was scheduled to quell those concerns. The Board of Education developed a protocol for the testing in collaboration with the UFT.

As samples were taken, city officials made efforts to get a firm grasp on the extent of a medical problem they first learned about last week. Letters went home via backpack last Thursday asking parents to bring their children’s medical records to school.

Doctors from the city Department of Health examined “every single school nurse record” looking for discernible trends or common symptoms, said Dr. Gary Krigsman, medical director of the Board of Health’s Bureau of School Health. The records were then compared against those from other schools in the district.

The number of children receiving medication at PS 65 is less than in other district schools and the percentage of students visiting the school nurse was actually far below what was seen in two other neighborhood schools, Krigsman said. Asthma rates in the school were also normal and absenteeism for both students and teachers was below normal for the last three years, he said.

“There is nothing in the medical log that the nurse keeps that would raise concern,” he said.


Some parents said they did not report their children’s symptoms prior to last week because they did not realize there could be a connection between the school and the illnesses.

Other parents said the reporting of symptoms has increased exponentially in the weeks since the story became public and that they did not know a problem existed until an article on the groundwater contamination appeared in a weekly community newspaper. In the past week, reporters could be seen outside the school giving parents copies of articles and maps of the toxic plume beneath the school.

Gardineer said those journalists “did a tremendous disservice to people in this room.”

Despite the test results that show the school is safe, Board of Ed officials said they will grant parent requests for transfers. Attendance dropped to 73 percent last Thursday from an average in the low 90s, officials said. Parents who want to pull their children out of PS 65 must contact the district office, they said.

“We can’t make you go to this school,” Catie Marshall said. But this is one of most overcrowded districts in city. If you don’t want your child in PS 65, you may have to put your child on a bus to travel.”

Board of Education officials promised to continue testing without regard to cost and to share all information with parents. Results of PCB tests are expected back in a few weeks, they said. Officials will address another parent meeting June 4.

“Every parent will have to decide what is in the best interest of their child,” Klasfeld said. “We don’t believe issues at PS 65 represent a health concern for students or teachers working at this school.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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