Early testing reveals high toxic chemical levels at Malibu High School

Preliminary testing at Malibu High School has uncovered toxic chemicals at levels that exceed regulatory limits, according to a statement released Friday by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

The findings trigger what could be a "very large, very expensive" remediation plan in which the district will have to conduct additional testing and ultimately clean up the chemicals, district Supt. Sandra Lyon said. That potentially years-long process will be overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she added.

Elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were discovered in caulking around window sills in about four of 20 tested areas, Lyon said.

But the superintendent stressed there is "no acute health risk" associated with the findings and the campus is "completely habitable," according to EPA officials she has met with.

"We … are going to do everything we need to do to clean up," Lyon said. "But we are also appreciative that there is no short-term risk — and agencies have made that very clear to us."

The announcement comes more than a month after parents and teachers voiced concerns about potential contaminants in a building that Malibu Middle School shares with the high school. Several staff members working in the same set of buildings said they had all recently been diagnosed with health problems.

Shortly after the complaints were raised at a school board meeting, district officials decided to relocate students in 11 affected classrooms to different rooms on the high school campus and to nearby Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. Lyon said the students will remain there as further testing and cleaning takes place.

Preliminary PCB test results of air samples came back "well below" the EPA's public health guidelines for schools, according to a statement released by the district earlier this week. But the "bulk" and "wipe" sampling results announced Friday raised concerns among some parents.

Parents concerned about the district's transparency have formed an advocacy group called Malibu Parents for Healthy Schools. The group has questioned the credibility of the district's environmental expert, hired its own environmental consultant to independently review the district's test data and demanded that the data be released more quickly.

Len Simonian, a member of the group, said parents had to fight to get the district to test for PCBs in the first place and also to get their expert access to task force meetings.

"There's still a level of mistrust — and these kinds of cat and mouse games are not helping," he said. "We're not relieved to find out there's a problem, but we're relieved to get some information."

Malibu parent Seth Jacobson, who sits on an environmental task force created in response to the incident, first raised the concerns at the school board meeting. Friday he defended the transparency of the process.

"There were some stumbles in the initial phase, and I think the district has owned up to it and risen to the occasion," he said. "My kids are safe, but I want to make sure that going forward, the district does everything it possibly can … to clean up and to minimize any exposure."

To Lyon, the case also raises larger concerns about a lack of standards regarding PCBs in schools. According to a district statement, PCBs were used in public construction between 1950 and 1979, when they were banned by the federal government. Although many schools were built in that period, Lyon said, there appear to be few guidelines for when and why testing will occur.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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