Feds Say Malibu High School Safe

Temporary fencing was installed in 2010 due to trenching work for a new information technology room at at the Malibu Middle and High School Campus. Soil containing elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was also removed in 2010, but some teachers believe the recent diagnoses of three colleagues with thyroid cancer may be related to contaminants at the campus. 

Federal and state environmental workers assured a roomful of scrutinizing parents and TV news crews last week that Malibu High School is safe for students to occupy, although some contaminant samples exceed federal thresholds. 

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said preliminary test results showed elevated levels of the suspected human carcinogens called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in some rooms, although not high enough to raise red flags. Because some samples surpassed the EPA’s legal threshold, the school district is now required to formulate a “cleanup” plan and further test soil, caulk, dust and air for PCBs. 

“Ultimately what teachers, parents and staff what to know is, are we safe?” Supt. Sandra Lyon told parents and board members. “We really want to make sure that those questions get answered.” 

About 100 people filled Malibu’s City Hall auditorium on Thursday night for a marathon four-hour study session addressing the Malibu High health scare. 

Concerns over PCBs flared in early October, when a number of MHS teachers expressed fear in a letter to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that the diagnosis of three teachers with thyroid cancer and health problems among other teachers could be related to contaminants on campus. PCBs were commonly used in building materials until a federal ban was implemented in 1979. 

The middle school’s main building was closed down after news of the health scare shook the community in October, and the district took initial tests of caulk, air and dust particles for PCBs and other chemicals such as radon. On Thursday, the EPA said the preliminary results did not raise any significant red flags. “Generally, as we looked at the [preliminary] data set, looking at it as a whole, it’s rather fairly low and consistent with what we would expect with buildings of this era,” said Steve Armann, a PCB program coordinator with the EPA’s California office. 

One of the samples that triggered the EPA’s regulatory involvement was caulk taken from an upper window sill at the high school’s library, Armann said. It contained 1,870 parts per million (PPM) of PCBs. The EPA’s legal threshold is 50 PPM. Anything above 50 is “illegal and needs to be removed,” he told the board. 

To put the Malibu High elevated sample in perspective, Armann compared it to samples found in a New York school where a similar health scare arose earlier this year. Samples from some of New York’s public elementary schools tested as high as 440,000 PPM, according to Armann. “You find PCBs in caulk,” he said. “It’s actually very common.” 

“Anything that’s been tested and verified above 50 [PPM] has to be removed,” Armann said. “…It’s a regulatory trigger. It’s not based upon health impact.” 

Air samples from the Malibu High library were deemed safe and the room is still open. “If you look at our [EPA] guidance, our remediation is test the air. If you’ve got safe air and you’re within our standards, that’s fine,” Armann said. 

Patrick Wilson, an EPA toxicologist, said it appears the PCBs inserted into the caulk when it was first manufactured do not appear to have broken down and migrated into the air or soil, where they could potentially harm students or faculty. 

“People do not have an increased risk of illness or of developing illness because of the contaminated caulk,” Wilson said. “…The caulk is the primary contaminant and it contaminates secondary sources. The air, perhaps the soil.” 

But in Malibu’s school buildings and similar buildings nationwide such as New York, caulk from the PCB-era could slowly degrade in the longterm and further contaminate the air. 

Once the district comes up with a federally mandated PCB cleanup plan, Armann estimated his agency could review it in seven days time so the district could move forward on cleanup as soon as possible. 

Wilson, Coda and Armann also said they would have no problem sending their children to any of the Malibu campuses in question. 

The school district is now soliciting requests for qualifications from environmental engineering firms to oversee the contaminant evaluation process and hopes to make a hire by January.