Two new portable classrooms installed last summer at an elementary school here have been plagued by an odor that has made students ill and may be linked to abnormal levels of two toxic chemicals found in the blood of a teacher and an 11-year-old girl.
Although two previous tests revealed nothing unusual in the classrooms, officials of the Orange County Health Care Agency returned to Truman Benedict school for a third time Tuesday to test for trichloroethane and benzyne, which were discovered in higher than normal levels in the blood of teacher Kristen Schultz and the 11-year-old student.
Benzyne is a chemical with properties similar to benzene, a suspected carcinogen that can be moderately toxic if ingested, inhaled or absorbed by the skin. Trichloroethane, often used as a solvent for fats, oils, waxes and resins, can be absorbed by the skin and is toxic.
Schultz asked school officials to have her classroom tested about a month into the school year after about 80% of her students complained of nausea, chest pains, headaches, dizziness and breathing difficulties.
Tests conducted at the time by the county for formaldehyde, trichloroethane and benzyne were negative, and school officials attributed the students' symptoms to the flu, which they said was common in other classrooms throughout the school.
But on Oct. 30, the school officials allowed Schultz to move her students to a makeshift classroom in the library when the student complaints continued and she refused to continue teaching in the portable room.
"I had enough children complaining that it became difficult for me to teach," said Schultz, who said she also suffered from nausea and headaches. "The children were articulate enough in their descriptions of how they felt that I don't believe they were made up. Since we've been in the library, my kids are healthy and I don't have to worry about our safety."
The school also moved students out of another portable classroom three weeks ago as a precautionary measure. The 11-year-old who tested for abnormal levels of the chemicals is a student in that class. Her teacher, Susan Wildenberg, had her blood tested last week but nothing unusual was found, district officials said.
"We're trying to be proactive and do as many things as we can to not put anyone in any danger if any danger exists," said William D. Eller, associate superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District. "If we can see that there is evidence of these chemicals in these classrooms, we're interested in knowing how they got there."
The district has enlisted the advice of Dr. Dorothy Calabrese, a San Clemente physician who specializes in allergies and immunology. Calabrese, who inspected the classrooms shortly before Thanksgiving, said that while there is no evidence of dangerous toxic exposure among the children, the strong odor inside could be enough to make particularly susceptible children feel sick.
"I don't have any concerns myself that there is toxic exposure at all," said Calabrese, who is treating a female student from one of the classrooms. "The odors are well below toxic. But if they are going to put children into a brand-new portable classroom, there should be more of an airing-out process before and a reasonable amount of time before they go into it. The room smells similar to what a brand-new (recreational vehicle) would smell like after its been sitting in the lot in the hot sun for a few months."
Still, many parents said they remain concerned about possible long-term health effects.
"I'm very worried about this and am scared for my little girl," said parent Patrice Ciampa, whose 11-year-old daughter was found to have high blood levels of trichloroethane and benzyne and who remains ill, even though she was moved from the class three weeks ago.
"She's sick now and she's never been a sickly child," Ciampa said. "I don't like the effects I've seen. We're talking about children, and it's supposed to be a safe place for them. Why didn't they take them out in the beginning? The longer they left them in there, the longer they were exposed."
Teacher Schultz and Ciampa's daughter had their blood tested through Accu-Chem Laboratories of Richmond, Tex., one of a handful of facilities in the country that specializes in testing for levels of chemicals that may not be detected in regular blood tests.
"The blood test results need to be put into proper perspective and need to be considered in conjunction with air studies," said Craig Degenhardt, a spokesman for Accu-Chem. "These two chemicals are short-lived compounds. The body will eliminate them rather quickly, depending on the levels, once the individual is removed from the environment.
"I would say that it is important that the district find out what materials were used in constructing the buildings before allowing children back in."
The two portable classrooms were purchased last winter from Aurora Modular Industries in Perris, Eller said.
Alan C. Webb, a company vice president, said he had not heard of any problems with the portables at Truman Benedict, but some other districts in the past have reported strange odors. In those cases, he said, further investigation revealed that the problems emanated from "something the district has put in," but he added that some people may be especially sensitive to certain odors common in all new buildings.
"This has happened from time to time," he said. "Certain teachers and students are more sensitive to odors than others. If you walk into any brand-new building or house, you're going to smell the newness of everything. Eventually it all wears off."
Parent Barbara Potter said her 11-year-old son, who suffers from asthma, was forced to begin using an inhaler shortly after school began in September.
"During the first few weeks of school, he would come home and say the room smelled so bad that it gave him a headache and made him nauseous," said Potter, who along with several other parents met with district Supt. James Fleming last month to discuss the problem. "Once they moved them out out of the room, the headaches, the dizziness and the nausea stopped. It was frustrating because we felt there was a problem and we were made to feel that it was all in our heads."
Another parent, Normandy Paul, said, "None of us are very comfortable about the kids going back. We have a real concern. This is not a figment of anybody's imagination, it is very real."
The district, which uses more than 500 portable classrooms to house its growing pupil population--now at about 28,500--will conduct tests in other portables throughout the district to see if anything unusual is found, Eller said.
"The dilemma is that we have hundreds of these buildings throughout the district that are the same structure," Ellers said. "We want to substantiate in our own minds, and in the minds of parents, that these buildings are indeed safe."