The level of toxic contaminants in Malibu school buildings is "dramatically higher" than previous reports, according to two groups pushing for the school district to address the environmental concerns they believe caused several teachers to develop cancer and other illnesses.
The test results mark the latest concern in a nearly year-long battle involving worried parents and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that has kept some students home from school and forced action by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Malibu Unites and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said in statement Thursday they have submitted independent test results to the EPA that indicate the levels of PCBs in Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School are thousands of times higher than the legal limit of 50 parts-per-million.
PCBs are carcinogenic and linked to other health issues, according to the EPA. The compounds were commonly used in building materials from the 1950s through the 1970s.
In a letter to the Malibu community in response to the tests, District Superintendent Sandra Lyon criticized the groups for secretly gathering samples from the school buildings and releasing test data "in a matter that was most certainly designed to incite concerns."
The district is also testing the schools, through the firm Environ, as instructed by the EPA. The district is waiting on the results of those tests, Lyon said.
The superintendent sent a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the same day to request assistance "in navigating these political waters."
In the letter, Lyon said the building samples used in the independent tests were gathered "without the knowledge of the District" and accused PEER of disrupting the district's own environmental work.
"It is clear they seek to create fear, confusion and concern," the letter read. "Our work is being undermined by secretive and misguided steps that are taking the focus away from the question (of the school's safety), and PEER is manipulating this situation for its own political purposes."
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Malibu Unites President Jennifer deNicola said the independent tests were done by the same EPA-certified labs that the district had used in late 2013. DeNicola said the party that paid to administer the tests wished to remain anonymous.
One of the rooms tested was a classroom in Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, which has not been tested before by the district. The tests found the room had caulk containing 340,000 parts-per-million of PCBs.
"That’s an alarming amount," deNicola said.
The classroom in question was used by a sixth grade class during the past school year when the teacher and class were moved from a different, less toxic room at the neighboring middle school.
DeNicola said the previous teacher in the contaminated elementary school classroom was one of three Malibu teachers recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and accused the district of moving children, including her daughter, into a "highly, highly, highly toxic classroom."
"The levels are so high, we can expect them to be in other places," deNicola said.
She said Malibu Unites wants the district to remove students from contaminated classrooms and put them in portable units. The group is also demanding that all rooms built before 1979 be tested, which the EPA also instructed the district to do in January.
DeNicola said she expects many parents to keep their children home when school starts in August.
Nahal Mogharabi, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said on Friday that the agency will evaluate the independent tests submitted by Malibu Unites and PEER, and the tests the district is conducting this summer.