Monster In a Box

New evidence that school really can make you sick

Photo by Myles RobinsonFor more than 50,000 Orange County students in portable classrooms, it might just be that school actually is making them sick. According to a report released in May by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG), portables—those boxy, prefabricated, trailer-looking "temporary" classrooms employed by school districts to alleviate overcrowding and meet class-size-reduction mandates—present potentially serious health risks to more than 2 million students statewide.

The report, Reading, Writing and Risk: Indoor Air Pollution Inside California's Portable Classrooms, is based on the EWG's review of scientific literature, anecdotal records and indoor air-quality tests. It asserts that harmful airborne chemicals such as formaldehyde and cancer-causing benzene have been measured in elevated levels inside portables. The toxins are said to be emitted by materials used in the construction of the buildings. The report concludes that inadequate ventilation also makes portables prone to hazardous accumulations of carbon dioxide as well as biological contaminants such as viruses, bacteria and toxic mold.

Since a 1991 account in The Orange County Register, in which a teacher and several children experienced nausea and headaches in a portable classroom at a San Clemente elementary school, similar incidents have been reported elsewhere in Orange County as well as in Fontana, Corona, Riverside, Cupertino, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Ventura and Sacramento County. Most recently, in the San Fernando Valley, a number of students and teachers reportedly fell ill after attending class in a portable at Rio Vista Elementary School in Saugus. Subsequent examinations of at least six of the students and one teacher by a pediatrician and a toxicologist revealed high levels of residue from formaldehyde, arsenic and other pollutants, as well as the presence of a toxic mold known as stachybotrys. One Rio Vista student, 10-year-old Aaron Scott, was diagnosed with an immune-system dysfunction.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that Aaron was poisoned by his classroom," his mother said at a press conference at the school. "There is no other explanation."

Local experts say OC classrooms aren't immune. According to Huntington Beach industrial hygienist Patrick Moffet, the great majority of portable classrooms in use statewide are essentially identical in composition. "A lot of the buildings that are modular have no cross-ventilation and no structural ventilation, and there's standing water a lot of times from rain, resulting in a high concentration of mold spores inside the building," he said.

Santa Ana attorney Edward Cross, who has worked extensively on indoor-air-quality cases in schools, said that environmental problems in schools are often due to the hassles that face all school districts. "Schools have bad air quality because they're poorly maintained," he said. "The maintenance is strangled by government bureaucracy, low budgets, and a lack of appreciation for the problem."

The EWG report levels considerable criticism at the state, which knew about the potential hazards of portable classrooms even in 1996. That was the year Pete Wilson's wildly popular Class Size Reduction Act had California school districts filling portables as quickly as maintenance crews could bolt them together. Indeed, the state Department of Health Services' own report on portables, Indoor Environmental Quality in California Schools: Critical Needs, was completed almost a year ago but has yet to be officially released. The draft report was made available after a Public Records Act request by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG). In it, the state warns that portable classrooms "have endemic indoor environmental quality problems" but that "there is no program to systematically inspect [portable] classrooms."

The state still has no date for releasing its study. One DHS official, speaking optimistically, said, "With any speed and grace, we'll have it to the governor's office within a month."

"The governor has been micromanaging everything," said Jonathan Kaplan, toxics program director at CalPIRG. "It's been a real problem."

Self-proclaimed "education governor" Gray Davis may be unable to skirt the issue much longer. Assemblyman Kevin Shelley's (D-San Francisco) Healthy Schools Act of 1999 (AB 1207) would regulate the use of pesticides near schools, monitor lead and radon, and establish guidelines for indoor air quality. Earlier this month, the measure was sent to the Senate floor, where it risks being tabled if it's not passed before the summer legislative session closes on Sept. 10—a very real possibility.

Meanwhile, ignorance will remain bliss for California school districts, especially in growing areas like Orange County, where increasing enrollment numbers are pushing districts to buy and use more portables. Orange County's four biggest school districts—Santa Ana, Capistrano, Saddleback Valley and Garden Grove—have no fewer than 2,000 portables in use, with hundreds more on campuses in OC's 24 smaller districts.

Maintenance officials with the Big Four insist they're working to ensure proper air circulation in portables. But several teachers contacted by the Weekly conceded that they often turn off the air-conditioning systems in their portables and close the doors and windows in order to reduce outside noise. And according to one Garden Grove school employee, routine maintenance—such as the quarterly replacement of air filters in the portables' ventilation units—is often behind schedule.

Portable manufacturers, most of them located in California, fiercely deny any connection between their classrooms and emerging health concerns. In a press release, Bill Meehleis of Meehleis Modular Buildings in Lodi called the EWG report "exaggerated and misleading" and claimed that the incident in Saugus has been thoroughly discredited.

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