A letter signed by 20 Malibu Middle and High School teachers Friday expressed concern that the recent cancer diagnoses of three teachers and health problems experienced by other teachers may be related to contaminants on the campus.
The letter, addressed to the school district's risk manager, states that three teachers have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the last six months. Another three have reported thyroid problems, while seven teachers suffered persistent migraines. Each of the affected teachers spent prolonged periods of time in buildings E (the main middle school building), F (Music and Drama), I (Visual Arts) and the school theater.
"These teachers believe their health has been adversely effected as a result of working in our particular buildings at Malibu High School," eighth-grade language arts teacher Katy Lapajne wrote in the letter.
The teachers requested the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District test for a range of contaminants such as mold, and to view a copy of a soil report from 2010 when soil containing elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from past termite treatments was removed from a portion of the middle school quad.
In a memorandum sent to MHS staff and school district personnel later Friday, SMMUSD superintendent Sandra Lyon stated that the district had retained Arcadia-based environmental consulting firm Executive Environmental to test for mold in some buildings, conduct air-quality monitoring and review the 2010 soil remediation report. Teachers are also being interviewed individually to determine the extent of their health problems.
"Over the past few weeks we have heard from teachers at Malibu High School who are concerned that health issues experienced by some staff members could possibly be related to environmental contaminants," Lyon wrote. "…Please know that safety of our staff and students is a primary concern. We appreciate that staff members have conveyed these concerns to us so that we can take the appropriate action. I can assure you that once the investigation and analysis are completed we will address the recommendations and will work with closely with you as we plan and implement any recommended next steps."
On Sunday, Lyon added in an interview with another outlet and shared with The Malibu Times that the district had "no evidence that there are any final environmental concerns. But we want to take the concerns seriously, we want our employees to feel comfortable."
The issue was first broached publicly at Thursday night's board of education meeting in Malibu, when former Shark Fund president Seth Jacobson asked the board about rumors of a cancer cluster among teachers at MHS. District CFO Jan Maez responded then that the district had received word from teachers about concerns, and had retained the consultant to test for contaminants.
Bill Bixler, who teaches instrumental music at MHS, said Sunday that teachers were nervous but that there was not yet any evidence that the health problems were related to their work environment.
"We don't know anything yet, we're just concerned. There's no specific thing. We think it's a little odd that three women in a year get thyroid cancer. We don't know if that's a coincidence. We just want to get some studies done, so that's what [the school district administration] said they'd do.
"So far, I have no gripes. The district's not messing around on this, they're right on it. we're just going to have to see right now from where it goes."
Bixler added that he and teachers he has spoken to have not heard of health problems concerning students at the school.
"As far as children go, we didn't hear anything about that," Bixler said. "This may be nothing. It may be pure coincidence. But you don't want to say it's nothing, so we'll just see. It's just kind of starting out. But so far the district is getting right on it."
A draft environmental impact report (DEIR) conducted in 2010 ahead of expected improvements to the campus found elevated levels of lead, pesticides and PCBs on the campus above state-mandated levels.
"PCBs are the primary contributor to the risk and hazard," the DEIR stated.
The extent of the pesticide and PCB-contaminated soils in the middle school quad area was estimated to be 1,017 cubic yards, before it was removed in 2010.
Jacobson, who sits on the MHS site council along with other parents, teachers and staff, said Sunday that he and other parents were upset the district did not immediately let parents know about the concerns raised by the teachers.
"We had to find out on our own. And we had to find out on our own that three teachers had been diagnosed with cancer," Jacobson said. "It's very deeply concerning as the parent of a middle school student.
"We should have known about it, the district should have told us about it. It's serious business," he continued. "Whether or not it turns out to be a problem. The fact that they've engaged a firm to do an environmental analysis of air quality around our building, that's a significant issue for children."