PCB Expert Paints Doomsday Picture for Future of Malibu School Kids

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Dr. David O. Carpenter faces the audience of a PCB forum to answer questions about the toxin’s effects on children.

“You don’t wait until you can count the bodies before you take steps when you have every reason to believe a certain exposure is causing disease,” PCB expert Dr. David O. Carpenter said last Tuesday, March 1. “In my opinion we’re way past that point on the issue of PCBs in indoor air at a concentration above five nanograms.”

Carpenter, a Harvard-educated medical doctor and environmental health expert, was speaking to a group of Pepperdine Law students, Malibu community leaders, teachers and parents during a forum on PCBs held last week at Pepperdine’s Malibu campus.

The event was organized by America Unites for Kids (AU), an advocacy group fighting for the testing and removal of PCBs from affected schools, and hosted by Pepperdine Law School’s Environmental Law Society.

Carpenter spoke for about an hour before taking questions. He detailed PCB exposure risks and shared information about what exposure to the toxins could mean for Malibu students and teachers — information he had shared in a deposition earlier that day. Carpenter is an expert witness for AU, the plaintiffs in a case filed against the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD).

The forum was attended by two SMMUSD Board of Education members, Oscar de la Torre and Craig Foster. Both were questioned by parents demanding to know why action has not come from the district.

“How do you explain the unexplainable?” Foster responded, adding, “They believe the narrative that’s been provided them by Environ [their environmental consultants], by Pillsbury [their lawyers].”

“There are still five school board members that are very committed to this narrative,” Foster continued. “They’re in a very comfortable place of being told by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), by Environ, by the lawyers that they’re doing the right thing.”

The forum was not attended by any official school district representatives and their perspective was not heard at the meeting; however, district spokesperson Gail Pinsker provided documents to The Malibu Times in response to Campbell’s statements.

Among these is a letter from the EPA to SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon dated Feb. 1, 2016, that includes the statement, “PCB exposure pathways are being addressed by the district in a manner that protects public health.”

“The SMMUSD is currently engaged in litigation with America Unites for Kids before the United States District Court in Los Angeles. We are aware that a speech was made during the meeting by one of America Unites’ expert witnesses in the litigation,” Pinsker said in an email. “The district cannot comment on active litigation matters. SMMUSD has acted at all times in good faith and under the oversight of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the State of California.”

The SMMUSD has followed EPA protocol when it comes to PCBs, but many parents are not satisfied with the level of testing and remediation. In addition to the highly publicized risks of cancer (PCBs are a “known carcinogen” according to the World Health Organization), Carpenter described intellectual and behavioral issues commonly associated with exposure.

“There were some very bright kids who had PCB exposure, but none of them were as bright as they would have been [had they not been exposed to PCBs],” Carpenter told those gathered. Carpenter was describing a study done after rice oil was contaminated with PCBs in Taiwan in the 1970s. IQ tests were taken by children whose mothers were exposed to PCB-contaminated food before giving birth and results were compared to a control group.

“These children were exposed only before birth,” Carpenter explained. “For every test that was given to these children, those children with higher PCB levels did more poorly on the test. The  more exposure, the poorer your cognitive function.

“And it appears that this is lifelong and irreversible.”

Carpenter continued to hammer home his point.

“We all know that what you achieve in life is related to your intelligence,” Carpenter said, adding that exposure can “dramatically reduce the number of gifted people,” while it will “dramatically increase the number of intellectually [challenged] people.”

The expert described that various exposure pathways can have varying results, and that PCBs with different types of compounds can be more or less volatile and have longer or shorter half-lives, meaning they stay in the body for different lengths of time. PCBs in Malibu schools are generally in the class with shorter half-lives, but none of this, Carpenter said, means Malibu schools are safe.

“If you’re in a school with high PCBs in the air, you’re breathing continuously … you’re continuously exposed,” Carpenter said.

Pepperdine Environmental Law Society President Kelly Roberts, who spoke briefly at the event, later described via email what it meant for her as a law student.

“Litigation is one of many tools in a toolbox (albeit an important one), but community engagement/organizing is also very important to changing the status quo,” Roberts told The Malibu Times. “Legally, I’m still pondering some of the issues involved in addressing PCBs, such as establishing causation and injury.” 

Roberts added that the issue might look very different a few miles south east.

“… I wonder what this same situation would look like in communities that are experiencing compounded environmental harms with far fewer community resources to adequately address those harms,” Roberts said.

AU founder and recent Malibu Times Dolphin Award winner Jennifer deNicola said that though PCBs are widely discussed in Malibu, it is not the time for advocates to slow down.

“I know you guys have PCB fatigue,” deNicola said, referring to the abundance of PCB information and rhetoric that has saturated Malibu since it was made public the toxins were in Malibu schools in 2013. “I have PCB fatigue.”

DeNicola called on parents and stakeholders to think outside the box when it comes to solving the issue.

“We have to try to do things that are different,” deNicola said.