Four years after closing its doors, the John C. Clark school sits vacant after Hartford Public Schools discovered high levels of dangerous chemicals known as PCBs. NBC Connecticut Investigates discovered there are other schools still open that might contain the same deadly chemical that forced Hartford to close the Clark School.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are synthetic chemicals that were widely used from 1950 to 1979. These chemicals become airborne over time and are believed to cause a number of health problems, including cancer.
NBC Connecticut Investigates found that building materials, like caulk and paint, used to construct a number of Hartford public school buildings contained these chemicals, and many of those schools haven’t been tested.
The Clark School opened its doors in 1971. It now sits abandoned in the North End of Hartford.
“This school in this particular state—it represents hopelessness,” Hartford Board of Education member Craig Stallings said.
Stallings grew up in the neighborhood and lives across the street from the school.
“This school has been affected by PCBs and it’s uninhabitable for your students and children,” explained Stallings, who was on the board when the school closed in 2015.
In 2015, the elementary and middle school was shut down indefinitely after testing found high levels of PCBs, a dangerous carcinogen that becomes airborne over time
The highest levels found in the school were nearly 2,000 times the EPA’s federally regulated level.
“The remediation of the PCBs in this school is a minimum of $1 million. And, the Board of Education, we don’t have that in our general budget,” Stallings said.
Dr. Nicole Deziel at the Yale School of Public Health has been studying PCBs for years.
“Exposure to PCBs is associated with a variety of health problems, including low birth weight, cancer, and impaired cognitive development in children for-- just to name a few,” Deziel said.
After almost 30 years of widespread use, the harmful chemicals were banned in 1979. That means buildings built or remodeled from 1950 to 1979 most likely contain PCBs.
“Children could be unknowingly exposed to chemicals that we know are so toxic and potentially carcinogenic and persistent, that they were banned four decades ago.”
In a list of schools NBC Connecticut Investigates received from Hartford Public Schools, we found 15 schools open today that were built or renovated during the time PCBs were widely used.
When we compared that to records from the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, detailing PCB testing done on all Hartford schools, we found 11 of those school buildings have never been tested.
“There’s no requirement to test. That’s the bottom line,” said Pete Folino, the president and principal at Eagle Environmental out of Terryville.
Folino has tested thousands of buildings across the state, including the Clark School, for PCBs and other hazardous building materials.
“Listen, municipalities could be shut down if they went out and did testing for PCBs. From a financial standpoint,” Folino explained.
While Folino wouldn’t comment specifically about Hartford Public Schools, he said that more and more, his clients choose not to test for PCBs to avoid the costly consequences of discovering levels that exceed federal regulations. Remediation and disposal of contaminated materials can cost millions of dollars.
“That’s kind of messed up if the city ain’t testing these schools and they’ve got all these kids in here,” said parents Sabrina Williams, whose daughter is in fourth grade at the Wish School.
After the John C. Clark school closed, many of its students were moved to the Wish School just a couple blocks away.
Wish, built in 1962, is one of the schools that appears to have never been tested. NBC Connecticut Investigates couldn’t find any testing related documents from the DEEP or Hartford Public Schools. Parents were shocked by that.
“You got everybody—everybody’s life and you know that’s a danger,” said parent Quanysha Banks, who is a former Wish student herself.
“Whether they believe that it’s there or not,” said mother of two Danielle Whitley, “I think the safety and the health of the children should be first.”
When we asked Stalling show much it would cost to reopen Clark, he said, “to remediate the PCBs was $1 million. So, to tear it down was probably $5-10 million. And so, the city doesn’t have that. Those funds.”
The City of Hartford and the Hartford Board of Education filed a lawsuit in 2015 against Monsanto Company, Solutia Inc., and Pharmacia Corporation saying the companies were aware PCBs were dangerous but produced products containing them anyway. They are seeking damages for the cost to investigate and remove the toxins. However, the companies are fighting back against the lawsuit and deny wrongdoing.
The school system has refused to comment.