Work on a ventilation system for potentially harmful chemicals below the BSGE building was recently completed. The presence of the chemicals was brought to the attention of the BSGE community on November 14th 2011 when the School Construction Authority (SCA) notified BSGE that in 2008, vapor testing below the school’s basement revealed the presence of two chemicals , tetrachloroethene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE) which in high enough concentrations are toxic. The levels of PCE and TCE , used in dry cleaning and industrial degreasing respectively, found in 2008 through soil vapor testing were above the background levels in New York (amounts found that might in the average household in the area) but below the Air Guidance Values for New York (amounts that could cause concern or health risk). More testing done in 2009 reveled similar air values that were once above background levels. Although these values seem harmful since they are soil vapor readings below the schools foundation they did not pose an immediate threat to the BSGE students. Since the ambient air concentrations of these substances were quite low it was no immediate cause for alarm. Nevertheless further testing after BSGE was notified revealed values that were well below both standards.
Unfortunately the reason these values were not disclosed to BSGE community when they were initially discovered in 2008 was because of the litigious circumstances. At the time BSGE was involved in a lawsuit with the landlord of the building, Mr. Sharif, regarding the extension of the building’s lease. However once such information eventually surfaced late in 2011, the BSGE community reacted quite quickly (Read The BACC Rag’s past coverage of the issue). Within the same week of notification Ms. Johnson sent home a brief letter to the BSGE parent body that outlined the circumstances of situation. The letter also described the preliminary efforts that would be taken, which include a scheduled meeting for any to attend on Tuesday, November 23, 2011. At the meeting, which parents and teachers attended, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the New York City Teachers Union, proposed plausible plans to bring down the concentration of PCE and TCE further as well as answered questions regarding the situation. Other than using a sealant to close any cracks within the foundation it was proposed that a ventilation system be built that would essentially redirect the subsurface fumes by using pipes to bring them to the roof and diffuse them into outside air.
The plans eventually did take full effect. At the time 11th grade biology teacher Dr. Helfenbien played a large role in overseeing the construction of the system, which spanned the entire summer. When asked about his role he commented that, “At about the same time that they decided to install the system I was elected the new chapter leader of the Union. Once I was elected I felt that I would come in during the weekly meetings during the summer.” This system, which Dr. Helfenbien presumed was a very costly job to install, was not paid for by the school. Dr. Helfenbein also noted that the installation of the system was swift and well done. He said, “I spoke with the boss of all the custodians in NYC and he said the people doing the job here were good and that he was happy with the progress.” The construction was completed just before the school’s opening in September and is currently in operation. The ventilation system can be monitored in the custodian office on the first floor.
After the ventilation system was installed the SCA believed that was all that was necessary to control the presence of the PCE and TCE below the school’s surface. Dr. Helefenbein has tried to schedule further testing through the UFT, although so far no progress has been made. Overall the presence of the substances were of no major alarm however the quick acting nature of the teachers and the school community allowed for the creation of a permanent solution to curb the soil vapor levels of PCE and TCE.