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Parents Unsettled By Cancer Scare At Bronx Elementary School

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The Department of Education and Chancellor Walcott admitted to hundreds of stunned Bronx parents Thursday night that they knew eight months ago that their children's school was contaminated with a cancer-causing toxin, and that they did nothing about it. NY1's Education reporter Lindsey Christ filed the following report.

The Thursday night meeting at P.S. 51, the Bronx New School, started with the type of apology a parent never wants to hear. In January, the city discovered that the elementary school in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx had unsafe levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing toxin.

But nobody told the principal, the teachers or the parents until this summer, six months later.

"One, by apologizing to all of you, two, by saying this will not happen again," said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. "Three, as a result of this, the process and protocol for this will change around the notification to parents. And it should not have happened that way."

Three weeks ago, parents at P.S. 51 got a letter from Department of Education officials saying the school building had failed air and soil quality tests and there were unsafe levels of TCE.

The school, which has 280 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, has been located at a former industrial site for 19 years and there is no record that it is ever been tested before. It was tested this year because the building's lease was up for renewal.

According to the DOE, before ventilation, air results ranged between 10 to 53 micrograms of TCE per cubic meter. After ventilation, air results had 1.7 to 2.4 micrograms. The state guideline is 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Health Department said there was no immediate concern to students or staff, according to DOE officials.

Nevertheless, the DOE is moving the school to a new building, and on Thursday night, officials met with several hundred worried parents.

"I think some more should have been done," said one parent.

Dr. Nathan Graber, a pediatrician from the Department of Health, was on hand to explain the potential effects of TCE.

"You can experience dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting, and for the long term health effects, we're mainly concerned about the risk of cancer," said Graber.

The officials told parents again and again to bring their children to the doctor to be checked. But after two hours of questions, parents said they did not get many answers.

"I needed some solid answers and I don't think I got that," said a parent.

"It's very disturbing that they took long to notify us and that we're getting vague answers," said another parent.

"Does that take away our fear that something is going to happen to our children? No, no it doesn't," said a third parent.

Some former student and parents heard about the meeting and came. Several said they have serious health problems and now wonder if it is connected.

City officials said they are coming up with a list of all the students and staff who have been in the building.

Parents said they did not think the chancellor admitting the city made a mistake and apologizing was enough.

The chancellor said the city's 31 schools on leased sites that have not been tested for contaminants will be tested soon.

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