It was the fall of 2013 when parents first heard there was a problem at Malibu’s combination elementary-middle-high school campus that sits on a hill above the Pacific Ocean.
"Teachers signed a letter [to the District] saying, we think our school is making us sick, will you test it?" says Jennifer DeNicola, a mother of two now teenage students.
The teachers' plea touched off a series of events that led a number of parents to accuse the Santa Monica-Malibu School District of covering up the presence of toxic PCBs on campus. Last year, a parents' group filed a lawsuit seeking to force the District to conduct a wide-ranging cleanup.
For its part, the District has strongly resisted the calls for more intensive testing and cleanup, arguing that the steps it's taking to manage the problem are based on Environmental Protection Agency recommendations.
The parent activists contend that the way the District is implementing the EPA guidelines violates a federal toxics law.
An "unacceptable risk"
After learning of the letter from the teachers, DeNicola says frightened parents began digging for information. Buried in the minutes of a school bond oversight committee meeting they uncovered an environmental report from 2010 that refers to PCB-tainted soil in the campus quad that posed an "unacceptable risk."
Other documents parents found showed that in the summer of 2011, workers carted away about a thousand tons of that tainted soil, which was required before the district could spend bond money on improvements. Discussion of that, she says, was also confined to bond committee minutes.
DeNicola says school communications with parents made no mention of what was in the dirt.
"The message that was given to parents: 'Oh, you’re going to see your [Measure] BB – which is our bond - your BB funds at work.' Nothing about toxic soil," she says.
The source of the Malibu schools PCB contamination is believed to be decades-old caulk used to seal windows and doors at the schools.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used in construction from about 1950 until the late 1970s. Congress banned their manufacture in 1976, and forbade their use in construction materials in 1979.
Still, PCBs remain in many older buildings, including schools. A recent Harvard study says up to one-third of the nation's schools, constructed between 1950 and 1980, may contain PCBs.
Alarmingly high levels
Spot tests of caulk by the Santa Monica-Malibu School District last March turned up alarmingly-high levels of the synthetic chemical. A majority of the samples registered thousands of times above the Environmental Protection Agency’s 50 parts per million (ppm) threshold for action.
One caulk sample from a window in the elementary school's music room measured 570,000 ppm.
That's "11,000 times the legal limit," DeNicola says. "We have the highest levels ever found in a school in the nation to date."
Fear about the health risks caused by PCBs prompted DeNicola and dozens of other parents in Malibu to pull their kids out of the town's public schools. They also formed America Unites for Kids, which filed the lawsuit against the school district.
That lawsuit alleges that at least six teachers and former students have thyroid cancer and at least 14 teachers have thyroid disease.
"It’s very concerning to us," says District spokeswoman Gail Pinsker. But she says, PCBs are not to blame. She points to a report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health that concludes there is no PCB cancer cluster in Malibu.
"The incidents of disease that people are associating with PCBs," Pinkser says, "are actually not associated with PCB exposure."
But some experts aren't so sure. One of them is Dr. David Carpenter, a pioneer in PCBs research and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany in New York.
Interfering with thyroid function
He says some of his own peer-reviewed studies and others link PCBs to thyroid illnesses, including cancer in animals and possibly in humans.
"PCBs interfere with thyroid function in several ways," he says. "One of the reasons they do is that the structure of the PCBs molecule is somewhat similar to that of thyroid hormone."
The World Health Organization classifies PCBs as a known human carcinogen and the EPA classifies it as a probable one. In addition, the EPA links PCBs to an array of other serious illnesses involving the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
Carpenter, who is offering his expertise to Malibu parents on a pro bono basis, says among his immediate concerns of PCBs in schools is the impact of the chemical on cognitive development among children.
"They reduce IQ, learning and memory ability," he says. "And they do so at least in part by reducing attention span and reducing the ability to deal with frustration."
Carpenter says EPA officials on the east coast have urged schools to test for and to remove PCBs, but those in California have not.
"What are the regulations?"
"The issue really is, what are the regulations?" he says.
The federal Toxic Substance Control Act requires schools to remove any open sources of PCBs – such as caulk - that contains PCBs at or more than 50 parts per million.
"But that regulation doesn’t say if you are concerned that there may be PCBs above 50 ppm you must test for them," Carpenter says.
Complicating matters further: the EPA's PCB guidelines for schools. They, too, don’t mention testing for PCBs. Instead, if a school suspects PCBs contamination, the EPA recommends an approach that, in part, entails wiping surfaces with wet rags and vacuuming, which is far more affordable than often costly PCBs removal.
And that's the path the Santa Monica-Malibu school district has opted to take.
"I wish we would have done things differently," says Oscar de la Torre, one of two board members who oppose the district’s approach. So far, he points out, the district has spent more than $7 million dollars on the issue, mostly in legal and consulting fees.
"We should have remediated immediately," he says. "Put student, teachers, staff in portables, get rid of the PCBs and [then] move students, teachers, staff back in."
America Unites for Kids' lawsuit contends the way the district is handling PCBs violates the Toxic Substance Control Act and it calls for the removal of all caulk with PCBs above 50 ppm from Malibu schools.
"The classrooms are safe"
As it fights the suit, the District insists its practices are sound. It has removed the tainted caulking from around the windows and doors it tested, but it has no plans to test any more caulk or any other potential source of PCBs in the schools. It also has no immediate plans to remove any more of the school's PCB-laden caulk.
"We are relying on our experts and the EPA and the [Los Angeles County] Department of Public Health and they have told us that we do not need to do that," Pinsker says. "We have been repeatedly told by the EPA and by our environmental consultants that the classrooms are safe."
Pinsker cites a Nov. 2, 2015 letter from EPA Region IX to SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon, that, in part, states: "Based on monitoring results to date...EPA does not believe that there is a need for additional testing of potential PCB source materials until planned renovation or demolition."
Dr. David Carpenter, however, disagrees.
While he says that it is a good idea to clean potentially contaminated classrooms, he argues that doing so with wet rags and vacuuming isn't sufficient to make the rooms safe if the source of PCB exposure remains in place.
"That certainly would help to collect the decaying caulk in the dust, but it has absolutely no effect on the airborne PCBs," says Carpenter. "The reality is, PCBs do pose a very significant risk, even if they're left undisturbed. The reason is that PCBs in the caulk slowly go into the air, they volatilize, and when they do, they're breathed in."
The America Unites for Kids lawsuit against the District is scheduled to go to trial on May 17.