Monroe school removes PCBs, but some parents are skeptical

MONROE — School administrators recently reopened rooms in Sky Valley Education Center that were closed to test for toxins. The building is safe, they said.

Parents and teachers — some at Sky Valley and others who left — are not convinced.

Sky Valley is located in the former Monroe Middle School, parts of which were built in the 1950s. The Snohomish Health District received about 120 complaints last school year from parents, students and teachers who reported getting sick there.

A consultant tested for contaminants and found evidence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. Manufacturing the chemicals stopped in 1979 because of harmful health and environmental effects. The school sealed or removed suspected PCB sources this summer.

On March 1, officials closed seven areas of Sky Valley after additional tests showed PCBs. Those results were determined to be false positives; mishandling of the samples reportedly led to detection of PCBs where there were none. Two follow-up tests came back clean, though PCBs were detected in electrical rooms.

In an 870-page report released last spring, Seattle-based PBS Engineering &Environmental outlined issues in the building. It found poor ventilation and inadequate filters. There were unlabeled chemicals and spills. Moisture damage suggested fungal growth. Poor housekeeping and the faulty ventilation led to dust accumulation.

Consultants said some paint could contain lead. They also detected asbestos. Tests looked for other substances, including formaldehyde, dust mites, radon and pesticides in soil. Those were not determined to be issues, though consultants noted that “the site as a whole may have other concerns that were not characterized by this study” and further testing might be needed.

The Monroe School District paid for more than $1 million in fixes over the summer, including repairs and cleaning of the ventilation system, installation of higher-grade filters, removal of old carpet, and covering or removing potential sources of PCBs and lead. It also hired another custodian for the school and promised routine environmental testing, part of a plan required by the health district.

Some families say it’s not enough.

More than a dozen parents and teachers said in interviews that they want classes moved to a new space with new supplies. Many want the building at 351 Short Columbia St. torn down. They also want a thorough study of past illnesses there.

The immediate need, they said, is transparency. New families are filling spots vacated because of illness. Parents who left want others to know about the history of complaints.

Environmental test results are available through the school district and online, Superintendent Fredrika Smith said. There’s no suitable place to move the campus, she said. If a space could be found, leasing and renovating to bring it up to code would be costly, said John Mannix, assistant superintendent of operations.

“When we have an opportunity to run another bond, that is a school that would be on the list,” Smith said. “It feels like something we should be able to do faster, but it’s just not possible.”

Sky Valley houses the district’s parent partnership programs, with about 850 students in kindergarten through high school. It’s also used for sports and clubs.

Among the symptoms described by families are: hives and peeling skin; fatigue; headaches; nausea; trouble focusing or remembering; dry cough and burning throat; difficulty breathing; chemical sensitivity; and precocious puberty, where children physically mature years earlier than normal.

Experts at the University of Washington, Children’s Hospital and the state Department of Health studied the precocious puberty complaints, said Jeff Ketchel, environmental health director for the Snohomish Health District. PCBs are a potential cause, but the investigation did not link cases to Sky Valley.

There ares no known causes for other symptoms.

“The best answer we were able to come up with is it was a combination of multiple things that cause these various symptoms,” Ketchel said.

From 2001 to 2013, the school district received five complaints about air quality in the building. Three more came in 2014. Officials didn’t see a cluster until 2015-16.

Monroe Middle School closed in 2011. At the time, Sky Valley was leasing space in a business park and facing potential funding cuts. Moving into a district-owned building saved money and provided better learning areas, Mannix said.

Officials knew the building had asbestos. A plan was put in place to manage it. More extensive environmental testing wasn’t done until last year.

The school district aims to find and fix problems, but can’t promise that no one will feel sick in the building, Mannix said.

Parents who left have called the school unsafe and “a toxic cocktail.”

They fear if it isn’t closed, more children will get sick, mom Jill Savery said.

Many parents didn’t think their kids’ symptoms could be tied to the building until they talked to each other about shared experiences. Families and teachers left the school, and most say symptoms lessened or stopped. They wish they could return to the program they loved, and say they would if it relocated.

Crystal Clinger was one of the parents who withdrew kids last year. She said her family can’t be around people or items that have been in the building without getting sick. Doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint a cause but believe it’s environmental, she said.

Timothy Lambright worries it could take legal action to move Sky Valley, where his kids go to school, and shutter the building. The district is fixing a building some feel can’t be fixed. Parents would help find a solution, he said.

The health district has not received more complaints since the summer renovations. If it does, they’ll be investigated, Ketchel said.

If future tests find a health hazard, the district would close parts of the school “without hesitation,” he said. More testing is scheduled in April.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

Submitting complaints

Families who want to submit complaints to the school district should ask for an indoor air quality form at their school or the district office. The health district can be reached at 425-339-5250 or ehquestions@snohd.org.

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