HARTFORD, Conn — A group of Hartford activists is sounding the alarm on what, they say, is a connection between toxic school construction materials and a wave of cancer diagnoses.

Now, there’s a community concern and calls for the city and school district to reveal what they knew and when.

The group Black Lives Matter 860 is spearheading the effort to inform former students, faculty and staff of certain Hartford schools that they should get checked by their doctor after possibly being exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls, more commonly called PCBs. 

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“Everyone should be concerned,” remarked BLM 860 Vice President Ivelisse Correa. “It’s happened to a lot of us who are under 40,” added Latoya Coombs of Hartford.

FOX61 investigated and discovered in 2015 the city of Hartford sued chemical company Monsanto for the cost to remove PCBs from the Clark Elementary School. Monsanto was the only manufacturer of man-made substances. 

“The common link has turned out to be their elementary schools,” said Correa.

Credit: FOX61
City of Hartford 2015 News Release on Monsanto Lawsuit

That same year the state Department of Public Health publicly acknowledged the issue, but said tests were, “way below a level that could cause health problems.” They published a chart claiming the exposure dose was barely higher than what you’d ingest from eating canned tuna twice a week. 

But Correa said, “You can’t sue them and say this can cause cancer and then tell people don’t get screened.”

Credit: FOX61
2015 Chart

Fast forward to now. Latoya Coombs said, “I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in September of 2021.” 

Coombs worked at the Clark School and was a student at Annie Fisher, another school that may have contained PCBs before its renovation in 2010. 

Coombs said she didn’t think much about her diagnosis until, “All of a sudden after I was diagnosed it was one other classmate, then another and another, and the next one and next one, and we all graduated at the same time…and we thought that was weird.”

In a statement, The Hartford Public Schools Communications Director Jesse Sugarman told FOX61 in part, “we are guided by the appropriate state and federal agencies to establish and maintain a compliant approach for the management of potential PCB materials in our buildings.” 

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Their full statement is below:

“Hartford Public Schools is committed to the safety of our students, teachers, and staff. In response to the recent coverage of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), we need to clarify that we are guided by the appropriate state and federal agencies to establish and maintain a compliant approach for the management of potential PCB materials in our buildings. 

School buildings originally constructed between 1950-1979 that were fully renovated (as new) would have included the removal of existing building materials potentially containing PCBs and air quality testing was conducted to ensure that our students would be entering a safe environment. This includes the schools located at 757 New Britain Avenue in Hartford. PCBs were outlawed in 1979, so is therefore not a concern for school buildings constructed or fully renovated after that date. 

In 2015, Hartford Public Schools communicated to all families that students and staff at Clark Elementary School would be relocated while testing was conducted. In that communication and others, the District provided resources as well as contact information for personnel at the Connecticut Department of Public Health so families could ask questions about PCBs. Furthermore, the District also hosted a family meeting so concerned members of the community could meet with the former superintendent and her staff. Ongoing updates (weekly) were provided to the community throughout the process and as follow ups to in person meetings.” 

According to the Environment Protection Agency, PCBs were commonly found in construction materials like insulation, paint, caulk and flooring before they were made illegal in 1979.

Credit: FOX61

BLM 860 is not only encouraging people to get a health screening but they are calling on the city and school district to pay for it, along with past medical bills. They are also asking anyone who may have been exposed to fill out a health survey.

Matt Caron is a reporter at FOX61 News. He can be reached at mcaron@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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