Council tackles PCBs in schools

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The testimony in City Council chambers lasted all Tuesday afternoon and stretched toward evening as representatives of city and federal agencies as well as the teachers' union spoke about why some city schools have been found to contain a potentially carcinogenic substance and what should be done about it.

At City Hall officials sought answers from the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority, the Department of Environmental Protection and federal Environmental Agency about why the chemical is still in the buildings, how risky it is and what can be done to remove it. City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who chairs the Council's Environmental Protection Committee, convened the Tuesday meeting along with colleagues John Liu (D-Flushing); Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside), chairman of the Oversight & Investigations Committee; and Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), chairman of the Education Committee.

City officials were outraged after a Daily News story earlier in April reported that some 266 city schools built before 1977 have caulk around their windows and doors containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a man-made chemical that may cause cancer and which the federal government banned in 1979.

"No parent would knowingly put his or her child in a building where environmental hazards could cause short- or long-term health problems. The revelation that PCBs may be found in 266 school sites highlights the need for vigilant assessment of environmental risks in all of our school buildings whether they are city owned or leased," Jackson said. "This isn't efficiency or effective risk-management to skip environmental reviews it is a betrayal of the public trust."

Gennaro announced the hearings Monday, which was National Healthy Schools Day.

"It's a shame that on Healthy Schools Day 2008, we are still worried about a chemical that was banned by the federal government 30 years ago and still talking about a hazardous loophole that is needlessly putting thousands of kids, teachers and school staff at risk," he said.

"We need to test all new schools built on leased property for toxic contaminants. This could be easily resolved if Mayor Bloomberg or the state Senate would withdraw their opposition to this idea and close the loophole today."

The witnesses called to testify at the hearing included United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, DOE Deputy Chancellor Cathleen Grim, Deputy Commissioner of the city Department of Health Jessica Leighton, representatives from the city School Construction Authority, EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Designee George Pavlou and experts on PCBs.

By Tuesday afternoon, only the EPA witnesses, Grim and the SCA had testified and each was reluctant to make definitive statements that would bind another agency, Gennaro's office said.

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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