NORTHPORT, Long Island (WABC) -- In an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News, the Deputy Commissioner for Public Health at the New York State Health Department left open the possibility that a middle school on Long Island that abruptly closed in January in response to the discovery of hazardous chemicals on the property could eventually reopen to students.
Deputy Commissioner Brad Hutton sat down exclusively with Eyewitness News to discuss the latest findings at Northport Middle School and the state's role in the examination of health concerns in the district.
Watch the extended interview in the video player above.
NMS has been the repeated source of health related complaints over multiple decades.
In the early 2000s a teacher collapsed in the building and a subsequent health department evaluation found the school had improperly dumped chemicals down school drains.
Students have also repeatedly complained about sickening odors that have at times forced the evacuation of classrooms.
In late 2017, health officials found the school district has been improperly storing hazardous chemicals and occasionally a vehicle in a warehouse below classrooms, and air quality tests found elevated levels of cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) among other volatile organic compounds.
Now the New York State Department of Health is seeking to understand the discovery of an elevated rate of leukemia cases among the school district's 2016 graduating class while also helping local health officials create a cleanup plan to remove benzene found in the septic system and mercury found in a cesspool on the property.
The Northport School District has relocated the school's roughly 600 students to other campuses in the district while an evaluation of the school continues.
"I think at this point we are going to continue to offer support to the district to see first of all what those results were... and to see what support we can offer to community representatives and the district to see how we can work together to address concerns so that in the future that building could potentially be used assuming we are all comfortable with the findings," Hutton said. "We understand there was the detection of mercury in a cesspool that was connected to drains from old science rooms and also benzene in a septic tank. Certainly those are things that need to be addressed and cleaned up. Not only were the levels not ones that would be expected to present health effects but they were not in locations that would typically result in exposure to students. We certainly support the need to clean them up but really to expect health affects you would need to have a reasonable pathway for exposure where students would be exposed to those contaminants. So we are going to work with the district to understand those findings, understand what else they are sampling and finding, and then finally help interpret those to make sound policy decisions."
Hutton added that the state's cancer study to identify whether an elevated rate of leukemia in the district's 2016 graduating class also extends to other age groups would take a little over a year.
If the state did find elevated cancer rates across multiple years and demographic groups, further studies may be required to determine possible explanations for those cancers, he said.
"If we found cancer patterns that persisted over time and age groups we would conduct a further review to see how we can explain that, if it was because of family history, if it was environmental sources, if it was other health behaviors. So that would be a subsequent phase of the investigation that would be more complicated and require different study strategies, but I think, first, the next phase is to determine whether or not we are seeing excess leukemia's that span across years and different age groups," Hutton said.
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State leaves open possibility of reopening Long Island middle school plagued by health concerns