Dept. of Ed pronounces PS 65 safe for children

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PS 65, the Ozone Park school parents contend is making their children sick, is safe for students and teachers and will open on schedule Sept. 5, the Department of Education said in a statement released Friday.

As they have since news of environmental concerns at the 103-22 99th St. school surfaced in May, parents reacted to school officials’ reassurances with doubts that the building is safe and threatened to pull their children from the school.

The announcement came despite new test results that show high levels of cancer-causing contaminants in the groundwater around the Ozone Park school, reiterating earlier statements by school and health officials that the toxins underground have not affected air quality in the building.

“Numerous air quality tests have been conducted at PS 65 over many months,” the statement said. “Both city and state health officials, after a lengthy review of these tests, have determined that the air quality in the school is the same as that found in typical indoor air and therefore conclude that the building is appropriate for use as an elementary school.”

But some parents insisted the Ozone Park school posed a danger to children.

“I don’t think it’s safe. I know it’s not safe,” said Katie Acton, mother of a 9-year-old girl who is set to begin fifth grade. “All I want is the school to be clean and then I’ll send my child back in.”

Acton said parents are not calling for the school to be closed, but want the contamination cleaned up before children are allowed back in the building.

“The ‘powers that be’ are too coward to admit that the school was built in an industrial zone and are further failing to correct the situation,” she said.

Department of Education and state and city health officials were expected to discuss their decision with parents at a meeting Thursday evening beginning at 7 p.m. at PS 65.

Citing the results of tests conducted over the summer that showed high levels of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the groundwater, the United Federation of Teachers last week threatened to boycott the start of classes at PS 65 if the union was not assured the building was safe.

In a statement Monday, UFT President Randi Weingarten said the union was in the process of reviewing the recommendations of school and city and state health officials.

“We are speaking with the chancellor about a variety of concerns, including when the remediation efforts at PS 65 will take place,” Weingarten said. “We have not yet come to any final conclusions.”

The Department of Education statement did not specifically mention the results of the summer testing for TCE, a colorless liquid used as a solvent for cleaning metal parts, in the groundwater. Kevin Ortiz, a Department of Education spokesman, declined to elaborate on the statement.

Tests conducted in July showed levels of TCE in the groundwater were as high as 2,900 parts per billion, said Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The accepted safe levels for TCE are no more than 5 parts per billion, he said.

The tests also found slightly elevated levels of TCE in soil vapors around the school, which is located on the site of a former airplane parts factory, Constantakes said.

The DEC is working with Ozone Industries, which caused the contamination, to clean up the area, he said. A ventilation system will be installed beneath the school as a precautionary measure.

School and city and state health officials have known about the contamination since 1996 and have consistently told parents the TCE in the groundwater 35 feet beneath PS 65 has not affected the air quality in the building.

At a June parents meeting, Dr. Joel Forman, clinical director of pediatric environmental health at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, said it was “highly unlikely” contamination of the groundwater so far underground could have an impact on the air in the school. “It is not the way things happen,” he told parents.

At the same meeting, Gary Krigsman, a Department of Health doctor who runs school health programs in four Queens school districts, said a review of medical records indicated there were no more health problems at PS 65 than in other district schools.

News reports that carbon dioxide levels in the air at the school were too high and the groundwater beneath the building was contaminated by TCE worked parents into a frenzy beginning in early May. Many said their children suffered from rashes, dizziness, headaches and sore throats and attributed the illnesses to environmental conditions at the school.

The school was closed for the summer session to facilitate the additional testing and the Department of Education insisted safety is its No. 1 concern.

“As always, the health and safety of our children and employees is of paramount concern to us and we will continue monitoring the school as necessary,” the statement said.

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

Posted 7:18 pm, October 10, 2011
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