PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemicals that were widely used in caulk and other building materials until they were banned in the late 1970s.
The EPA says hundreds of school buildings across the country have caulk around windows and doors containing PCBs. The danger to students is uncertain, but the agency is telling schools that they should test old caulk and remove it if PCBs turn up in significant amounts.
Under the agreement announced Tuesday, New York City will pick five public schools -- one in each borough -- to monitor for PCB-contaminated caulk. If the caulk is found to contain PCBs, the city will come up with a plan for removing it or covering it up to limit exposure. The goal is to develop a citywide protocol for minimizing the risks of PCB-contaminated caulk that can serve as a
model for school systems across the country.
"The work that the city of New York has agreed to do will go a long way toward helping us better understand the potential risks posed by PCBs in caulk, and our work to reduce the exposure of school children, teachers and others who work in New York City public schools," said EPA regional administrator Judith Enck.
The issue of PCBs in construction materials is an emerging one for public health officials. For most people, food is the main source of PCB exposure.
PCBs have been found to cause cancer in lab animals, and some studies have shown a link between PCBs and disorders of the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
Existing studies have not shown that PCB exposure from buildings affects human health.
Nancy Clark, an assistant New York City health commissioner, said public health authorities do not see PCBs in buildings as an immediate health concern "but something that we need and want to know more about."
New York City's public school system is the nation's largest with 1.1 million pupils and 1,600 schools.
An EPA spokeswoman said New York was selected for the pilot program because the school system is well equipped to collect the data, and parents and elected officials have raised the issue.
U.S. Rep Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, said he was pleased with Tuesday's agreement.
"We can now feel safer in the knowledge that the appropriate officials are addressing the problem and will soon begin the process of carefully removing these dangerous chemicals from New York City school buildings,'' Nadler said.
Under the agreement, the city will begin submitting detailed plans to the EPA in two to three months. Work on abating the PCBs is expected to begin this summer.