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Fumigant Residue Forces School Closure : Toxic-Violations Inquiry Launched After 21 Become Ill in Whittier

October 09, 1986|SUE CORRALES | Community Correspondent

WHITTIER — The county Department of Health Services closed a Whittier school this week after a weekend fumigation apparently left behind toxic residues that made 21 people--including 15 children--ill on Monday.

WHITTIER--The county Department of Health Services closed a Whittier school this week after a weekend fumigation apparently left behind toxic residues that made 21 people--including 15 children--ill on Monday.

On Wednesday, yellow-suited cleanup teams went into East Whittier Middle School to remove residue from the pesticide Dursban and the chemical DDVP, as both the health department and the county Agricultural Commission began investigations of the East Whittier City School District's use of toxic chemicals.

Results of the health department's investigation, which will take several weeks to complete, will be forwarded to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said Jose Ochoa, senior industrial hygienist with the health department. Ochoa said he is looking at whether there was improper application of chemicals and whether the school district attempted to improperly clean up the chemicals.

Ochoa said school custodians, wearing only paper masks for protection, were scrubbing out classrooms when he arrived Tuesday. He said he is also concerned that the school district personnel may have been sending toxic residue into the sewer system. Improper disposal of toxic wastes can be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the quantity and the duration of the offense, said Ed Saxton, investigator for the district attorney's office.

$500 Fines Possible

Officials from the county Agricultural Commission said Wednesday they are investigating whether the school district used toxic chemicals in the wrong place and in the wrong concentration. Under a new state law, the commission could fine the district $500 per violation, said Cato Fikdal, supervising inspector of the Agricultural Commission's pesticide use enforcement division.

The campus was fumigated Saturday by two or three district employees, according to Dorothy Fagan, assistant superintendent for personnel services. At least one of the employees, she said, had received training in the proper application of the chemicals.

Fifteen students and five aides went home sick Monday morning, complaining of irritation that may have resulted from strong fumes in their classrooms. One teacher, Sally Zaremba, fainted and was taken to Whittier Hospital Medical Center where she was treated and released. Fagan said Zaremba told her she "still had a headache" Wednesday.

Classes were called off after 2 1/2 hours, and students were told to go to the cafeteria and auditorium, which had also been fumigated, or onto the playing field, which had not been sprayed. Students were kept on campus until school let out at 3 p.m., district officials said. School was canceled for the rest of the week, and will reopen Monday at the earliest, Fagan said.

She emphasized that the campus, which has been sealed off, will not be reopened until toxicity checks show the contaminants have been removed. Fagan said that school custodians were initially sent in to clean the residues, but she said she did not know how they disposed of the waste.

School Ordered Scrubbed

After tests showed toxicity levels sufficiently high to produce symptoms in sensitive people, the Health Department ordered a thorough scrubbing of the school by a professional hazardous waste removal company. Ochoa said the cleanup will involve scrubbing "every crevice, every crack" with an alkaline solution, and rinsing with bleach. The campus will then be retested.

Even after cleanup, Ochoa predicted a chemical odor will be detectable. The district hired Disposal Control Service Inc. of Upland to clean the school at a cost not to exceed $46,000, Fagan said.

Tuesday, the health department took air samples at seven sites around the campus, and the Agricultural Commission wiped nine surfaces, looking for toxic residue. The highest levels were found in wipings of student lockers, where the pesticide Dursban was found in concentrations of 611 micrograms per square foot. DDVP, which is considered to be less irritating, was present in lower concentrations, Ochoa said.

According to Ochoa, the chemicals were used at six times the recommended concentration.

Those levels, Ochoa said, "were higher than we would like to see them. Adults may be considered safe at those levels, but we're not dealing with an adult population."

Irritable Concentrations

Paul Papanek, chief of the county health department's toxic epidemiological program, said the chemicals were present in concentrations sufficient to produce irritation in sensitive people.

"At this level, we're way short of serious poisoning," he said. "My only concern would be an irritation or allergic reaction, that might involve nose irritation or an ear infection, or a cough," he said. Papanek advised parents to take children to a physician only if they had symptoms.

A parent, who asked not to be identified, said her daughter came home from school Monday "just reeking" from the pesticides. "Even her books smelled," the mother said.

Enrollment at East Whittier Middle School is about 680, Fagan said. The school has about 55 faculty and staff members, she said.

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