No federal law prevents local authorities from building new schools on contaminated land. However, the problem of building schools on hazardous sites, ranging from old landfills, abandoned factories to even a former Manhattan Project lab, has finally been recognized as a dangerous pattern.
In reaction, several states have enacted laws to prevent siting of new schools on toxic sites. These measures provide little relief to a large but unknown number of schools atop hotspots – some for decades, like the Malibu/Cabrillo schools. Besides what is in the soils, many older school buildings are themselves the source of problems. An estimated one-third of U.S. schools have mold, dust and other indoor air problems serious enough to provoke respiratory issues like asthma in students and teachers.Additionally, construction materials have also been shown to be dangerous to long term A national survey of school nurses found that 40% knew children and staff adversely affected by indoor pollutants.
In an ongoing PEER case, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District’s classrooms showed dangerous levels of toxic Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) “over 100,000 ppm (parts-per-million) and measurements up to 570,000 ppm” compared to the statutory limit of only 50 ppm. Several teachers and students had been diagnosed with serious thyroid and autoimmune related illnesses. PEER joined forces with America Unites for Kids to force the District to clean up the schools.
In 2016, the Court ordered that the school district remove all PCBs or cease using the toxic buildings.
“Defendants are hereby permanently enjoined from using any office, classroom, or other structure at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School (‘JCES’) and Malibu Middle and High School (‘MHS’) (collectively the ‘Malibu Campus’) constructed prior to 1979 in which students, teachers, administrators, or staff are regularly present after December 31, 2019, unless all window and door systems and surrounding caulk at any such location has been replaced.”
The EPA has deemed PCBs a probable carcinogen and scientific evidence has shown that they lower IQ, interfere with brain and body development, and cause neurological, endocrine and thyroid disruption. The District expended $13 million to avoid removal, including $6 million on legal fees to fight this case.
In 2018, The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District filed a motion seeking to significantly postpone the effective date of the 2016 federal court order directing removal of illegal levels of hazardous chemicals in its Malibu classrooms and facilities. If granted, the legal motion would keep students and teachers inside dangerously contaminated buildings until December 31, 2024.
PEER is working with concerned public school teachers, staff and agency professionals to identify and remedy sick schools.