Many Blame Landfill for High School’s Cancer Rate


Teachers, counselors and former students at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley gave emotional testimony Monday about current and former colleagues who have cancer that the witnesses suspect was caused, at least in part, by toxic gases from a now-closed landfill across the street from the campus.

The witnesses appearing in a public hearing of the state Senate Natural Resources Committee included Sylvia Brown, a longtime counselor at Poly, who cited 38 cases of cancer among past and current faculty.

However, Edwin Lowry, the director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said four sites, including Poly, were recently tested and determined to be safe. Angelo Bellomo, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District environmental team, also testified the district has found no connection between the health problems at the school and the Sheldon-Arleta Landfill that closed in the late 1980s.


Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the committee, said the panel is investigating the situation to determine if legislation is needed to require more monitoring of sites near landfills.

“This is a fact-finding investigative hearing,” Hayden told the crowd of about 100 in the Department of Water and Power building across the street from the high school.

The state Senate panel will hold another hearing in the next few weeks in Carson, where Towne Avenue Elementary School has reported a similar high incidence of cancer cases in its school community.

Deborah Weaver, a teacher at Towne Avenue, testified on Monday, citing a number of health conditions at the school--including kidney disorders, asthma and eight cases of cancer--that faculty and administrators believe are caused in part by toxins from a former landfill near the Carson campus.

“The high rate of cancer has distressed our staff,” Weaver said. “In the 1990s, every year someone got cancer at our school.”

Bellomo, chairman of the LAUSD safety team that monitors efforts to identify potential toxins at more than 50 schools, said it won’t be easy to make a connection between cancer and gases emanating from landfills.

“Because of the prevalence of cancer in our society, it will be difficult to detect cases induced by toxic components from things like landfills,” he said. “The cancer population is so large, a few extra cases from chemical exposure will be difficult to identify.”

He added, however, that “it should in no way alter the school district’s commitment to ensure the exposures are minimized by assuring that landfills are regulated and strictly monitored.”

But for many who spoke at Monday’s forum, the attention now being paid to the issue was a case of too little too late for something they say has been going on for nearly two decades.

“Over the years you could smell the odors from the landfill,” said Poly’s dean of students, Jerry Cord, a teacher and coach at the school for 33 years. “I was always told the toxins were not a problem and methane [gas] was not a problem, but in the 1980s a baseball player got bone marrow cancer and died,” he said.

“Several years later I got Hodgkin’s disease, and about a month ago, a boy that played baseball for me in the ‘70s was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s,” Cord said.

Anita Rubenstein, who grew up in a house across the street from Poly, said she believes that toxins from the Sheldon-Arleta Landfill contributed to the death of her father. She provided a list of 20 people within a two-block area that have either died of or are living with cancer.

“People are really concerned,” Rubenstein said, in tears.

Former student Cathleen Granger also cried as she testified that her 38-year-old sister, also an alumna of Poly, died of breast cancer that the family believes was connected with landfill toxins.

“There is no history of cancer in my family,” Granger said. “I remember when we were in school, the smell from the landfill was enough to make you gag.”