Public Urged to Lead on Environmental Safety
[Rachel's Introduction: Speakers urged the government to use what they called the "precautionary principle," an approach to environmental protection that puts public health first. New Jersey, they said, needs to make the public's health and safety the top priority because the state has more than 15,000 contaminated sites, as well as some of the nation's highest rates for cancer and chronic lung disease.]
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By Jim Wright, Staff Writer
From testing schools for PCBs in window caulk to ridding those schools of caustic cleaning supplies, the public must play a larger role in making their communities safer, speakers said at a major environmental conference on Monday.

"When the people lead, the leaders will follow," Robert Spiegel of the Edison Wetlands Association said at the conference, held at Seton Hall University.

He described growing concerns over potentially hazardous levels of PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- in caulk in public schools built between 1930 and 1980 statewide. The carcinogen is considered particularly dangerous to children because it is also thought to impair brain development.

"I don't think we need to wait to see how bad all the schools are or for government to tell us they don't know the full extent of the problem," Spiegel said. "We know it has been a problem around the country where they've tested [for PCBs]. We know there's the potential for the problem in New Jersey."

Speakers urged the government to use what they called the "precautionary principle," an approach to environmental protection that puts public health first. New Jersey, they said, needs to make the public's health and safety the top priority because the state has more than 15,000 contaminated sites, as well as some of the nation's highest rates for cancer and chronic lung disease.

"All we are focused on and all we are asking for is precaution," said keynote speaker Lois Marie Gibbs, who helped sound the alarm about the massive Love Canal toxic waste site near Niagara Falls three decades ago.

"We want government to take precautionary steps because we do not know enough about the science of exposure to chemicals and human health in this country or worldwide," said Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

As an example, she cited a bill currently before the New York Legislature that says the only kind of cleaning agents that can be used in public school must be "green," or non-caustic.

"Right now they use this toxic, horrible, horrible stuff, and children put their faces or their hands on their desks," she said.

Brenda Holzinger, president of the Environmental Education Fund, said that although New Jersey has the Global Warming Response Act and many other progressive policies, other states and nations have taken the lead on applying the precautionary principle.

She said when the state is dealing with toxic chemicals and pollution, it should be guided by the idea "that if we think there is harm, if we have uncertain information, let's go slowly and take precautions."

E-mail: wright@northjersey.com

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