Scientists Deplore City's Shutdown of School Due to Trace Levels of Dry-Cleaning Chemical

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The New York City Advisory Council on Health Priorities, an affiliate of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), calls the decision of New York City Public School officials to close an East Harlem school because of findings of trace levels of perchloroethylene, or "perc," in the air "scientifically baseless."

P.S. 141, which once housed a dry-cleaning facility, has been found to have levels of perc that fall well below government safety limits. Tests conducted at the school showed levels ranging from 16 to 36 parts per billion. One part per billion is equivalent to one second of time in 32 years. Nevertheless, because of pressure from parents and School Board members, the school has been shut down.

There is no scientific evidence that trace levels of perc, a dry-cleaning solvent, pose a human cancer risk. According to ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, "The classification of perc as a 'possible carcinogen' by the Environmental Protection Agency is based strictly on the results of animal tests. Even studies of dry-cleaning workers exposed only to perc have not shown increased cancer mortality."

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets the acceptable perc exposure level at 25 parts per million. The New York State Department of Health (DOH) lowered OSHA's already cautious level to set the state's perc guideline at a minuscule limit of 15 parts per billion less than one one-thousandth of the levels at which health effects have been observed. Even though the school's perc levels fell short of the state's guideline, the DOH and Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew deemed the school safe because the levels recorded there were well below those found to be adverse to health. And the perc levels at the school will probably continue to decline over time.

The children of P.S. 141 have been dispersed among other already overcrowded schools in the neighborhood. "It's a shame," notes Dr. Whelan, "that Public School officials have allowed the unsubstantiated fears of parents to bully them into making a decision that will have a detrimental effect on children's education and that will provide no health benefit."