Parents sue school district, Monsanto over classroom air quality
MONROE — Families and teachers flocked to the Sky Valley Education Center for a unique brand of learning, but several fled with serious illnesses due to the neglect of community officials and Monsanto Co., according to a Jan. 2 lawsuit filed in King County.
The suit alleges that the Monroe School District, Snohomish
Health District, the State of Washington, and Monsanto knew for decades that dangerous polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) compounds tainted the learning environment of five to 18-year old students but did little to remedy the threat.
The defendants face allegations of substandard and skipped school safety inspections, recurring and unmitigated safety violations and withholding information about the presence and threat of PCBs.
What began with a scant handful of complaints at the 351 Short Columbia St. school site
swelled to more than 120 reports of serious illnesses and deaths between 2001 and 2017. The site, built in 1950, originally home to Monroe High and Junior Highs became a middle school in 1987 and Sky Valley Educational Center in 2011.
The bulk of the complaints, more than 100 of them, were filed in the past three years. Approximately three dozen plaintiffs, many of them minors, are named in the suit along with a provision for up to 250 additional individuals.
The lawsuit says that former teachers, students and families have suffered numerous severe health conditions, some of which have led to deaths. The ailments include cancer, miscarriages, neurological disorders, onsets of unusually early puberty, respiratory illnesses, mental illnesses, headaches, stomachaches, skin damage, and vision issues.
“Two out of three STEM teachers at the program have reportedly had cancer since 2011. Three young parents of STEM students have died of cancer. Two children have reportedly died of cancer,” according to the suit.
Longstanding safety concerns
The plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Seattle law firm Friedman and
Rubin spelled out a 60-year history of facility neglect and substandard building conditions due to inaction. They documented complaints dating from the 1950s about insufficient school inspections and maintenance, including an instance where more than 100 fluorescent lights, known to contain PCBs, were in disrepair. The attorneys argue that if the school district
had replaced the light fixtures containing PCBs to newer models without PCBs to meet state standards to
make classroom lighting brighter, the PCB-laden light fixtures would have been coincidentally removed as early as the 1980s.
Friedman and Rubin also documented Monsanto’s knowledge dating to the 1950s that PCBs were thought to be hazardous to health.
Monsanto’s chemical, marketed under the
name Aroclors, was used for window caulking and a plasticizing sealant for light fixtures. The issue is that the chemical leaches out and vaporizes into the air over decades.
The complaint further states that Snohomish Health District knew the school district was noncompliant in mitigating unsafe environmental conditions at the school but did not act to enforce compliance until late last year.
The school district was aware of several mitigation opportunities, including in 2001 when it adopted a policy of removing all fixtures believed to contain PCBs, a policy it allegedly never implemented.
Before becoming the relocated Sky Valley Education Center, Monroe Middle School used the site and the first few
air quality complaints began to trickle in during their tenancy, which ended in 2011. By 2015, eight complaints
had been filed, including three in October of 2014. Nine more flowed in during the first semester of 2016.
The Snohomish Health District began receiving complaints in December 2015 and soon the trickle swelled to a flood of
approximately 120. By then, families and faculty had begun leaving the school with concerning symptoms
or in fear of developing them.
Despite the volume of complaints, officials remained uncertain as to cause.
The school district does not believe the elevated levels of PCBs are linked to health issues, spokeswoman Erin Zacharda said in a past interview with the Herald.
Monroe School District attorney Patricia Buchanan wrote in a letter that PCB levels at Sky Valley were not high enough to have caused the harm outlined by the families.
And Snohomish Health District’s Environmental Director Jeff Ketchel, now the health district’s administrator, said it seemed the
symptoms could be attributed to multiple factors including poor ventilation and housekeeping problems.
The district acts
The school district adjusted Sky Valley’s ventilation
system after the 2014 complaints though officials said no contaminants were found at that time.
The school district committed to quarterly air quality tests. And beginning in mid-January 2016 PBS Engineering and Environmental conducted onsite investigations which led to several remediation actions.
During winter break 2016, carpets were removed from some classrooms. The school also addressed PCB in caulking, lights and other sources, sealing off some sources and removing others such as heating and ventilation systems, at an expense of $1.2 million.
The district has also hired more custodians and an HVAC specialist.
The school closed
briefly in March 2017 to test again for contaminants, after January tests returned positive results in seven areas of the school, including two classrooms. The spaces were temporarily closed, and follow up tests were
negative. Officials blamed mishandling on the initial concerning test results.
The suit is not unprecedented: 2015 and 2016 filings by the state, a defendant
in the current suit, as well as Seattle and Spokane also concern the health risks of PCBs, whose production was banned in 1979.
The Sky Valley trial is slated to begin Dec. 31. Monsanto has already set aside $545 million toward liabilities against any successful product liability claims according to the lawsuit.
Jurors will decide whether and how much the defendants should pay in damages.
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