Monster In a Box

New evidence that school really can make you sick

Michael Rhodes, president of Modtech in Riverside County, said: "Modtech's classrooms are designed, engineered and manufactured in accordance with structural and safety regulations adopted by the California Department of General Services' State Architect Division. This includes indoor air-quality standards."

But Louis Nastro, a spokesman at the department in question, disagreed. "The gentleman's claim that we have something to do with indoor air quality is incorrect," he said. "Indoor air quality is not something that our plan reviewers inspect for."

Portable manufacturers have been making big money ever since Wilson mandated class-size reduction. Modtech's annual earnings, according to a 1996 report in The Sacramento Business Journal, have increased nearly 1,000 percent since 1996 to a staggering $127.6 million in 1998.

EWG's Bill Walker was on hand for a special Beverly Hills school-board meeting in late July, where parents raised concerns about recent tests that revealed high levels of formaldehyde in several portables. Walker emphasized that the most important step a community can take is the simplest one: don't panic. There is no question, he said, that students are at risk in portable classrooms, but he appealed to parents to be realistic. "There is cause for concern, but above all, there is the need for more information," he said. "The bottom line is that the risk for most people in most classrooms is very low. What we calculated is that we might see a lifetime cancer risk doubling or tripling. The lifetime cancer risk is measured under the U.S. Clean Air Act, and the acceptable cancer risk is one in a million. So, if we have 2.5 million kids [in portables] in California, we're talking about a couple of extra cases of cancer. The big concerns, undoubtedly, are the nosebleeds, the nausea, the asthma, the hay fever and the other sorts of things that affect people at a very immediate level."

Further common-sense steps can reduce the risks of portables: school districts need to promote awareness among employees, parents need to demand that districts provide records of routine maintenance, and teachers need to ensure that rooms are ventilated properly. Long-term fixes, Walker said, should begin with an appeal to the state to develop an acceptable standard to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in the construction of portables.

"We know that hospitals, nursing homes and even sometimes art galleries are using materials that are much lower in the emissions of these toxic chemicals," Walker said. "Surely our children are worth it as well, even if it is more expensive."

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