Complaints of Illness Trigger Hunt for School Contamination and Turn up PCBs

Thursday, November 28, 2013

After months of accusations that the Santa Monica–Malibu Unified School District was less than forthcoming about complaints from teachers and staff members that something was making them sick at Malibu High School, preliminary testing has found higher-than-acceptable levels of toxic chemicals.

Superintendent of Schools Sandra Lyon said levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that exceed standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were found in caulking around windows and she told the Los Angeles Times they have the potential to trigger creation of a “very large, very expensive” remediation plan.

But she emphasized in a district press release that the data confirmed “there is no acute health risk” and were “consistent with EPA acceptable levels.” Nonetheless, the EPA, the Los Angeles County Health Department and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) will begin additional testing and immediate remediation.

The building where the contaminants were found is shared by the high school and Malibu Middle School. Students in 11 classes were recently relocated to other rooms on the campus and to another nearby school. PCBs were routinely used in public construction for 30 years, until banned by the federal government in 1979.

The district was reluctant to release results of testing conducted under the supervision of the Malibu Schools Environmental Task Force until they were peer-reviewed. But that triggered accusations of a cover-up at a school board meeting in which district employee Ingrid Peterson, who says she may have thyroid cancer, refused to stop talking—until the board cut her microphone.

Three teachers who worked in the building were recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer and three other educators may have thyroid problems, according to NBC Los Angeles. Other teachers and staff have reported migraines and skin rashes.  

Critics of the school administration said the district was failing to conduct all the testing they felt necessary, initially limiting tests to the air when many suspected soil contamination could be the problem. The district did a PCB cleanup in the area in 2009 and 2010, which the DTSC consulted on. The department’s Thomas Cota told the Malibu Times that its review of the results “looked good” but the cleanup needs to be revisited.

Skeptical parents have formed an advocacy group that hired its own environmental consultant and demanded more transparency by the district. In a letter sent to the school district and published in Malibu Patch, the group recounted some observations of the consultant about the soil contamination.

“Middle School Quad was contaminated with PCB at over 11 times the California recommended levels (as well as with pesticides, benzene and toluene). As a result, during the summer of 2011, the District removed 48 truckloads of contaminated soil from the Quad. However, ARCADIS [the district’s environmental consultant] made clear in its report that ‘the source of the PCBs has not been identified.’ ”

Group member Len Simonian told the Los Angeles Times much more needs to be done to assure the community that the school building is safe. “There's still a level of mistrust—and these kinds of cat and mouse games are not helping. We're not relieved to find out there's a problem, but we're relieved to get some information.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Malibu Teachers to District: Test For More Toxins (by Melissa Caskey, Malibu Times)

PCB Levels at Malibu High Trigger EPA Involvement (by David Mark Simpson, Malibu Times)

Parents Appoint Independent Consultant to Review Malibu High Health Concerns (by Jessica E. Davis, Malibu Patch)

Malibu HS Tests Show Carcinogen Levels above EPA Limit(by Christina Cocca, NBC Los Angeles)

Early Testing Reveals High Toxic Chemical Levels at Malibu High School (by Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times)

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