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Some toxin levels at Malibu school exceed limits, district says

November 22, 2013|By Matt Stevens
  • At sunset, a runner makes his way around the Malibu High School track in July. Preliminary testing at the school has uncovered elevated levels of toxins, district officials said.
At sunset, a runner makes his way around the Malibu High School track in July.… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Preliminary testing at Malibu High School has uncovered toxins at levels that exceed regulatory limits, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials said in a statement Friday.

The findings trigger what could be a “very large, very expensive” remediation plan in which the district will have to conduct additional testing and ultimately clean up the chemicals, district Supt. Sandra Lyon said.

That potentially years-long process will be overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she added.

Elevated levels of PCBs were discovered in caulking around window sills in about four of 20 tested areas, Lyon said.  

But the superintendent stressed there is "no acute health risk” associated with the findings and the campus is “completely habitable,” according to EPA officals with whom she has met.

“We … are going to do everything we need to do to clean up,” Lyon said. “But we are also appreciative that there is no short-term risk -- and agencies have made that very clear to us.”

The announcement comes more than a month after parents and teachers voiced concerns about potential contaminants in a building that Malibu Middle School shares with the high school.

Several staff members working in the same set of buildings said they had all recently been diagnosed with health problems.

Shortly after the complaints were raised at a school board meeting, district officials decided to relocate students in 11 affected classrooms to different rooms on the campus and to nearby Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. Lyon said the students will remain there as further testing and cleaning takes place.

Preliminary PCB test results of air samples came back “well below” the EPA’s public health guidelines for schools, according to a statement released by the district earlier this week. But the “bulk” and “wipe” sampling results announced Friday raised concerns among some parents.

Parents concerned about the district’s transparency have formed an advocacy group called Malibu Parents for Healthy Schools. The group has questioned the credibility of the district’s environmental expert, hired its own environmental consultant to independently review the district’s test data and demanded the data be released more quickly.

Len Simonian, a member of the group, said parents had to fight to get the district to test for PCBs in the first place.

“There’s still a level of mistrust -- and these kind of cat-and-mouse games are not helping,” he said.  “We’re not relieved to find out there’s a problem, but we’re relieved to get some information.”

Malibu parent Seth Jacobson, who sits on an environmental task force created in response to the concerns, first raised the issues at the school board meeting. On Friday, he defended the transparency of the process. 

“There were some stumbles in the initial phase, and I think the district has owned up to it and risen to the occasion,” he said. “My kids are safe, but I want to make sure that going forward, the district does everything it possibly can … to clean up and to minimize any exposure.”

Jacobson said he is hoping for a “robust communications program” from the district that will “educate parents on what the risks are,” as well as immediate cleaning of the classrooms in question.

To Lyon, the case also raises larger concerns about a lack of standards regarding PCBs in schools. According to a district statement, PCBs were used in public construction between 1950 and 1979, when they were banned by the federal government.

Although many schools were built in that period, Lyon said there appear to be few guidelines for when and why testing will occur. In her district’s case, testing came at the request of parents, teachers and staff.

Lyon said other school districts, which also might have elevated levels of PCBs, might never know if districts don’t test.  

“If it’s that serious a chemical that we need to be dealing with, how is it OK that testing only happens at random?” she said.  

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Twitter: @MattStevensLAT

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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