Washington, DC — A public school campus one block from the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, California is enmeshed in a toxic contamination quandary with teachers insisting on more information as to the substances to which they and their students may be exposed. Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), representing teachers in the Malibu Middle and High Schools and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, demanded a full site assessment which, at a minimum, meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protocols.
As part of a construction project back in 2011, contractors discovered soils on campus contaminated with PCBs and organochlorine pesticides (chlordane and DDT) presenting “an unacceptable health risk,” according to the contractor’s assessment. This testing also detected several other toxic chemicals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, benzene and toluene) above California Human Health Screening Levels. However, contaminated soils were only removed from parts of the project footprint by workers wearing no protective gear. No further testing was done. Nor did district officials, knowing of the hazards posed by disturbing the soil, notify parents, teachers or even the school principals when more than 1,100 tons were removed while summer school was in session.
In early October, a group of 20 Malibu/Cabrillo teachers wrote to the district about recent cases of thyroid cancer, rashes, migraines, hair loss and other health effects they were experiencing and believe arose from their work environment. Shortly thereafter, the teachers’ letter and the earlier soil removal went public.
The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District reacted defensively with reassuring yet uninformative messages. It then engaged a consultant to conduct limited testing for indoor levels of PCBs, radon and CO2, though the latter two played no known role. The rationale for this testing was not explained. Over the ensuing weeks, the district has released partial, conflicting and unhelpful updates.
Today on the teachers’ behalf, PEER urged that the district, EPA and California Department of Toxic Substances Control officials perform systematic testing to definitively confirm or dispel concerns:
- There should be a site assessment covering the entire three-school campus to determine the extent and hopefully the source of toxic chemicals;
- The review should look at lead, arsenic, benzene and all of the chemicals found, not just PCBs and pesticides; and
- To assess all sources of exposure there must also be soil testing, which the district initially promised but then reneged upon, not just the less reliable air testing inside classrooms.
“It is utterly irresponsible for the district to further delay investigations to discover the true extent of the contamination on campus,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that an environmental consultant engaged by Malibu/Cabrillo parents has suggested actions similar to those urged by the teachers. “By taking evasive half-measures, the district is only fanning fears and breeding distrust.”
The district has not released any hard data from its limited testing. In a November 17th letter to staff, Superintendent Susan Lyon stated that airborne PCB levels were “well below” EPA health guidelines. This was not true, however. Ms. Lyons then had the Nov. 17th letter pulled from the district website and issued another letter on Nov. 22nd admitting that PCBs in some areas exceeded EPA “trigger levels” but “pose no acute threat” in classrooms. But, this made little sense since PCBs pose a chronic, long-term threat not a short-term exposure danger.
“The district is only compounding its potential liability by trying to ignore rather than investigate what is really present on campus and why,” Dinerstein added, noting that the district has allocated $30,000 to hire a law firm with funds that could have been used for soil testing.