Monster In a Box

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.

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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