An early Fox 61 news story about the closure of John C. Clark Elementary School in Hartford. The school was eventually closed permanently because of contamination. Credit: Screengrab / Fox 61
Polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, are industrial chemicals that were used as coolants and lubricants in mechanical equipment for over 50 years. They were banned in the late 1970s when evidence began to accumulate that PCBs accumulate in the environment and cause negative health impacts on plants and animals. Since their ban, PCBs have been linked to skin conditions such as acne, liver damage, and are even considered a carcinogen that may cause cancers of the liver and biliary tract.
So when these dangerous chemicals were found in John C. Clark School in Hartford, the reaction was swift. Parents were rightfully concerned about the safety of their children, as were staff and faculty. The problem was so pervasive that the school was permanently closed in 2016, with promises to build a new school. In 2019, NBC Connecticut conducted an investigation and found that up to 11 other schools in the city may have similar contamination.
Seven years after the discovery of the carcinogens, very little has been done. Clark School remains closed, with no plans to replace it anywhere on the horizon. Many of the other schools which NBC Connecticut investigated have not been tested. And now, concerns are spreading across the city as young, otherwise healthy adults are developing cancers after attending both Clark and Annie Fisher elementary schools.
The major challenge of PCBs is that over time, they degrade and become airborne. The airborne levels in Clark School were over 2,000 times higher than federal guidelines allow. While schools are the site of focus, the fact is that any building in Hartford that was built or renovated during the PCB era presents a public health danger. But with tearing down or renovating those buildings proving to be prohibitively expensive, what other options are there?
This question inspired the City of Hartford to team up with Upward Hartford, a local nonprofit, and Aura Air, an international business that sells air purification systems, to host a 24-hour Hackathon aimed at solving the indoor air quality issues the city faces. From February 11-12, students, businesspeople, community members and local officials came together to work through the night to come up with innovative solutions.
The Hackathon was not an idle academic exercise. The winning idea will be implemented as a pilot program that would roll out across the city, and the team that came up with it receives $1,000. The federal Environmental Protection Agency provided the funds and resources for the Hackathon. One of the key problems that many of the teams identified was a lack of knowledge about the issue. Many residents think of air quality in terms of outdoor activities, such as greenhouse gasses and other pollutants that residents are familiar with. But all of these pollutants also filter into buildings, and combined with PCBs, asbestos, and other hazardous materials, they present an intensified danger to people who live and work in the city.
Most of the teams decided that raising awareness was the first step to addressing the problem, and focused their efforts there. The ideas generated covered a range of approaches. One team wanted to create a poignant video about how indoor air pollution negatively impacts health, especially for children.
Another thought that formal education was the best way to share information about the dangers of pollution, and proposed specific curriculum for K-12 students to learn about while in school, and a second curriculum for college-age students. Still another team shined a light on the problem of illegal dumping in the city, and its dual impacts on health- first from the garbage itself, and second from the pests and vermin the garbage attracts. Both compromise air quality for people.
The takeaway was that when people are empowered to solve problems, by receiving space and resources to do so, the results can be remarkable. Dozens of people from Greater Hartford came together and put forth real solutions that will improve health and save lives. They were diverse, from all walks of life and all sorts of professional backgrounds. They worked through the lens of environmental justice, acknowledging throughout that poor indoor air quality disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color.
The issue of PCBs and poor indoor air quality in Hartford remains a pressing one, but the city and its residents took a concrete step toward resolving it by working together.