Malibu High classes moved amid contaminant probe

School district superintendent Sandra Lyon announced Tuesday that classes at the main Malibu Middle School building would be moved to trailers and next-door Juan Cabrillo Elementary School while the district investigates a health scare centered on the aging building. A report on potential mold contamination in the building is expected to be released by the end of the week, Lyon said, while soil and air-quality studies are in the works.

Twenty-one teachers at the Malibu Middle and High School campus sent a letter to the district’s risk manager on Friday expressing concern that the recent cancer diagnoses of three teachers and health problems experienced by other teachers may be related to contaminants on the campus.  

The three teachers were diagnosed with thyroid cancer within the last six months, according to the letter. Another three have reported thyroid problems, while seven teachers suffered persistent migraines. Each of the affected teachers spent prolonged periods of time in buildings E (the main middle school building), F (Music and Drama), I (Visual Arts) and the school theater.

“These teachers believe their health has been adversely effected as a result of working in our particular buildings at Malibu High School,” eighth-grade language arts teacher Katy Lapajne wrote in the letter.

The teachers requested the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District test for a range of contaminants such as mold, and to view a copy of a soil report from 2010 when soil containing elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from historic termite treatments was removed from a portion of the middle school quad.

“We don’t know anything yet, we’re just concerned,” said Bill Bixler, who teaches instrumental music at MHS. “There’s no specific thing. We think it’s a little odd that three women in a year get thyroid cancer. We don’t know if that’s a coincidence. We just want to get some studies done, so that’s what [the school district administration] said they’d do.”

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A draft environmental impact report (EIR) conducted in 2010 ahead of expected improvements to the campus found elevated levels of lead, pesticides and PCBs on the campus above state-mandated levels.

“PCBs are the primary contributor to the risk and hazard,” the EIR stated.

The extent of the pesticide and PCB-contaminated soils in the middle school quad area was estimated to be 1,017 cubic yards, before it was removed in 2011.

Lyon responded in a memorandum later Friday that the district had been made aware of the teachers’ concerns in September and had retained Arcadia-based environmental consulting firm Executive Environmental to test for mold in some buildings, conduct air-quality monitoring and review the 2010 soil remediation report.

On Monday, one day after the story was reported by City News Service and The Malibu Times, a coalition of parent and community organizations at Malibu High School requested that classes be moved from the campus’s middle school building until it was proven to be safe from environmental contaminants. They also requested the district appoint a liaison to keep parents informed and respond to questions, and hold a town hall meeting.

Tuesday afternoon school district officials complied. Approximately 300 parents, teachers and students packed the MHS auditorium and Superintendent Lyon presented an action plan and responded to questions.

Lyon said beginning Wednesday all classes in building E, the main middle school building, would be moved to trailers on campus or to two classrooms at adjacent Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. A crossing guard will be hired to help students shuttle between campuses.

By Friday, the district intends to publish a timeline of the studies it is performing on contaminants at the campus. Tests for mold in building E are complete and will be published online Friday, Lyon said.

Malibu resident Elaine Rene-Weissman will serve as a community liaison between the Malibu community and the school district.

Meanwhile, the district plans to hold regular meetings with parents to keep them informed, and a health survey of Malibu High employees will be conducted through the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

At the meeting, several parents asked about the possibility of conducting independent studies of the campus outside of the school district’s.

“We’re not opposed to that, so we’re going to look into how we do that [peer review],” Lyon said.

Others suggested that the entire campus should be examined for contaminants, including one who had read the 2010 EIR and noted that the campus sits on land that used to be used for agriculture.

The Malibu Times will have continuing coverage of this situation as it unfolds throughout the days ahead. Check our website for updates at www.malibutimes.com.

Jimy Tallal and Alexis Driggs contributed to this report.

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