Portable classroom risks

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    My husband Larry and I were recently made aware of a study (reported last May in the L.A. Times) which cites schoolroom toxin risks for students in prefabricated buildings. The study found a child’s lifetime risk of cancer may be two to three times higher than federally accepted levels because of formaldehyde and other chemicals used in construction, according to Bill Walker, the California Director of the Environmental Working Group. Inadequate ventilation contributes to the problem according to the nonprofit group which is calling for greater regulations over the industries that make portable classrooms.

    Because newly constructed portable classrooms were installed at Juan Cabrillo and Webster Elementary School this fall (and our daughter attends third grade in one of the classrooms at Juan Cabrillo), we were obviously concerned after reading this report.

    We contacted Art Cohen, assistant superintendent of the Santa Monica/Malibu School District, who assured us that these new buildings had adequate ventilation systems and that the teachers had been instructed in proper ventilation techniques which include keeping the windows and doors open. We were very surprised to learn that the buildings were “tested” a couple of weeks ago. Why weren’t we — the parents — told about any of this? Why are the buildings being tested now, when students are fully occupying them? CTL Environmental Services in Harbor City is the company hired by the district to test the portable buildings. When Larry called with his concerns citing another EPA study that he had just read about on the Web, he was told, “don’t believe the EPA — we’re sure the buildings are fine,” this from an independent testing group? Who are we to believe? We were not surprised to learn that, according to CTL, the test result (released Nov. 5) was a “negative” finding. We learned, by the way, that testing occurred under the best conditions — with the windows and doors wide open. What level of toxins are our children being exposed to when they walk into class on a Monday morning? Art Cohen said the smell (and they really mean smell) is comparable to a new car smell. Well first of all, most people aren’t in their cars eight hours a day like the kids in those classrooms, and one’s nose in a smelly car is only a couple of inches from a window!

    Ellen Aasletten, a facilities planning official with the state education department, was quoted in Sunday’s L.A. Times as saying: “We just don’t know what’s harmful in the air quality — for example which amounts of formaldehyde and other toxins might be harmful.” Great question, state education department! Here’s a better one: Why are our children and teachers being subjected to an environment we’re not positive is safe? Look at what’s happening in the L.A. Unified School District with schools being shut down due to asbestos problems because crucial precautions weren’t taken.

    What toxins are being emitted from those portable classrooms and at what levels? Are there acceptable levels — and what are they? How do our schools rank with the norm? Can we have an independent analysis – or must we rely on a company, under contract by the district, that told us in advance they “weren’t going to find anything!”

    Both Pat Cairns and Phil Cott, principals of Juan Cabrillo and Webster, are very sympathetic to our concerns and are doing their best to get answers for us but they are educators, not scientists, and this is certainly out of their line of expertise. Cott told me he hopes “we all learn a lesson from this.” What’s the lesson? I certainly don’t want to recklessly wave a red flag, nor do I want to read a report 10 years from now citing new evidence about these buildings and children’s exposure to them because we weren’t asking the right questions today. The district needs to be more forthcoming about this issue.

    Lori Gray