Two years ago, a group of worried Malibu High and Middle School teachers begged the district to test certain school buildings for harmful toxins. In a letter to school administrators, the 21 signatories laid out alarming trends among educators at the school: Over a period of six months, three were diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Another teacher was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Others suffered from migraines, rashes and hair loss.
In the letter, obtained by the Malibu Times, the teachers wrote that they "believe their health has been adversely effected as a result of working in our particular buildings at Malibu High School."
The teachers demanded several tests be done on the campus, including ones for air quality, radioactivity, iodine, soil testing outside and under buildings, mold, asbestos and more.
The letter brought to light earlier tests on school grounds. The Malibu Times explains that in 2009, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a toxin linked to cancer (though experts say the reported cases of thyroid cancer were likely not caused by toxins) was found on the campus' soil.
The letter made headlines, but months later the district was still dragging its feet. LA Weekly reported in March of 2014, six months after the letter was sent, that the district still hadn't taken sufficient action to asses health concerns on campus. Though the district spent about $500,000 on soil and other tests, teachers were still concerned for their health. And a policy analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the school wasn't allocating funds correctly. "They've spent half a million dollars dodging and covering up," Hugh Kaufman told LA Weekly. "We still don't know what the problem is, or what the magnitude of the problem is, because the school district refuses to do what they have to do to find out."
Frustrated, parents took things into their own hands. Malibu Patch reports that in 2014, parents took caulk samples from classroom windows and tested it for polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a toxin linked to cancer. Patch explains:
Parent Jennifer deNicola and others went into classrooms at Malibu High School, and the adjacent Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, in 2014 and took samples of window caulk, according to parent activists. Like many buildings where glass was installed in the 1960s, the caulk was formulated with large amounts of polychlorinated biphenyl, a plastic-like putty that later was recognized as a significant cancer threat.
The sample revealed high levels of PCB. Now, the school district is asking police to open a criminal probe against the parents over trespassing and vandalizing school property.
The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District claims that the actions, and resulting tests, were unauthorized. The district's own testing—which didn't examine caulk samples—also found PCB on campus, but at lower levels. school district spokesperson Gail Pinsker told the Malibu Times that they didn't take caulk samples because "experts recommend to focus on exposure, which shows non-detect for PCBs." Pinsker added, "We understand the ongoing concerns of a few parents and staff members and continue to educate our communities on the science behind our actions."
But other officials are siding with deNicola and the other parents who went rogue. School board members Craig Foster and Oscar de la Torre wrote to Superintendent Sandra Lyons, the target of at least one lawsuit over the possibly dangerous teaching conditions, asking her to drop the case. Foster said the parents' testing "revealed source PCBs (that are) above EPA threshold levels in rooms we have been told were fully remediated."
DeNicola, the only parent identified by name, said she sees the criminal investigation as a form of "harassment" and "bullying."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.