SEATTLE — Families are suing over health issues they say stem from toxic chemicals in old school buildings in Monroe.
The buildings are home to the Sky Valley Education Center, which houses the district’s beloved parent-partnership program. The campus at 351 Short Columbia St. previously was a high school, junior high, then middle school before Sky Valley moved there in 2011. More than 800 students were enrolled last school year.
The Snohomish Health District has received numerous complaints about the buildings, and the Monroe School District in summer 2016 put more than $1 million toward fixes. Some say it was too little, too late.
A complaint filed in King County Superior Court on Tuesday alleges that, despite repairs and cleanup, the buildings have become “large toxic ‘sinks’ ” because of decades of chemical leaks, spills and fumes that contaminated surfaces and supplies.
Symptoms reported by the families varied. They include: eye problems, infections, sore throats, nose bleeds, allergies, asthma, coughs, trouble breathing, heart palpitations, headaches, tremors, numbness, tingling, confusion, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, fatigue, chills, sweats and early puberty.
Photographs filed with the court also show blisters, rashes, peeling skin and a cyst on one girl’s scalp. The images came from about a dozen people who attribute the symptoms to their time at Sky Valley.
“At different times during the past few years, some Sky Valley parents and teachers raised serious health concerns associated with the school buildings … Until mid-2016, the School District and the Health District did not appear to take the concerns seriously,” says the complaint, which was filed by Sean Gamble of the Friedman Rubin law firm in Seattle.
The complaint alleges that the state, the school district and the health district failed to maintain safe school buildings and to protect children, staff and visitors. Attorneys also argue that the company behind the toxic chemicals is liable for producing and promoting an unsafe product, and for failing to warn of the dangers.
At least a dozen families are represented in the list of plaintiffs. The complaint is against Monsanto Co. and its affiliates Pharmacia and Solutia, along with the Monroe School District, the Snohomish Health District and the state of Washington.
The lawsuit seeks to link the plaintiffs’ health problems to synthetic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that were produced by Monsanto for decades for use in lighting and construction. The company knew PCBs were highly toxic and harmful to humans and animals, according to the complaint. However, Monsanto continued to sell them until a change in law in the late 1970s banned PCB production. This isn’t the first time the company has been sued over harm done by PCBs. In 2015 and 2016, Seattle, Spokane and the state of Washington each sued the Monsanto companies.
Common sources of the chemicals in old buildings are caulking and light ballasts. From there, they can get into the air, dust, soil, carpet or furnishings. PCBs can be absorbed through breathing, eating and skin contact.
Over the years in Monroe, students and teachers witnessed the failure of light ballasts that contained PCBs, according to the complaint. The ballasts leaked, fumed or smoked. At least three teachers submitted air quality reports in 2014.
In a 2014 letter to staff, a school administrator wrote that the building was “quirky and old and sometimes a challenge,” but it was safe.
In fall 2015, one teacher was taken from the school by ambulance because of neurological symptoms, the complaint says. The substitute later complained of symptoms and resigned within three months. About a dozen teachers have reportedly left the school.
The district hired a consultant to test for contaminants. Some parents and at least one health district official questioned the results. Samples were taken when the rooms were colder than normal and when the windows were reportedly open.
Since 2016, parts of the school have been closed off at times and multiple rounds of testing have been done. A closure in early 2017, after the district had completed its clean-up work, was prompted by false positives and mishandled tests, administrators said. Follow-up tests came back clean.
The work done in 2016 to remove toxic substances included repairing and cleaning the ventilation system, installing higher-grade filters, tearing out carpet and covering or removing possible sources of PCBs or lead. Another custodian was hired for the school and the district promised routine environmental testing.
During interviews last March, families and teachers, including some who had chosen to leave the school, told The Herald that they want Sky Valley moved to a new space with all new supplies. The district has said there is no suitable place. Leasing and renovating a spot would be too costly. Superintendent Fredrika Smith said the Sky Valley Education Center would be “on the list” when the district runs another bond measure.
A Monroe School District spokeswoman Wednesday referred all questions regarding the suit to the district’s attorney, Patricia Buchanan.
In an October letter to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Buchanan called the allegations “misleading” and said the school district has been transparent in its efforts to make sure buildings are safe. She referred to former claim letters from Gamble that said each claimant may be entitled to $20 million.
The district has addressed all environmental health concerns identified at Sky Valley, Buchanan wrote. Since air quality reports were received in 2013-14, the district has worked with public agencies and hired consultants to monitor the buildings and make improvements. In spring 2016, maintenance workers were trained on PCB clean-up and disposal.
“Upon the first report of potential health concerns, the District began efforts to inspect and ensure that its facility was completely safe for its staff, students, and families,” she wrote.
Buchanan also asserted that PCB levels at Sky Valley were not high enough to have caused the harm outlined by the families.
“I can’t vouch for the safety of the buildings following the remediation,” Gamble said Wednesday. The lawsuit focuses on damage done before, he said.
Stacy Mullen-Deland taught Spanish and had children at the school. During a press conference Wednesday she said her son got so sick he could barely walk some days, and he now takes heart medication. Her daughter’s symptoms included “gushing nose bleeds.” Her family had always been healthy, eating well and staying active, she said. It took her a while to link the sicknesses to the building, after which she said she “begged” the district to relocate the programs.
Mother Jill Savery said she loved the parent-partnership program. It let her be part of her children’s education. She now sees herself as “a parent and an educator, in a facility that was poisoning us.” One of her daughters passed out at school. Her oldest daughter now carries a medical mask because she is so sensitive to scents and chemicals. That wasn’t a problem before she spent time in the Sky Valley buildings, Savery said.
A jury will determine the amount of damages, Gamble said. A trial date is set for Dec. 31, though that may change.