Panic in paradise: Malibu high school community shaken by cancer fears

It seemed as if poison and panic had seeped into paradise. “My children are terrified,” Beth Lucas told a hushed auditorium of about 300 parents. “Raise your hands if your kids have had migraines.”

A pause, then dozens of hands went up. Everyone looked at each other. Eyes widened. “Oh my God,” murmured a voice. An alleged contamination appeared to have claimed more victims than anyone had imagined.

Until this week, Malibu high school, home to 60 teachers and 1,120 students, was a blessed patch of California: sunshine, ocean vistas and privilege, close to the aptly named Paradise Cove.

When not learning in bright, spacious classrooms named after sharks, students filled afternoons with water polo, horse riding, soccer, basketball and theatre. The public school maintains consistently high SAT scores.

On Tuesday, however, parents and students packed the auditorium with anxiety verging on dread. They were afraid that contaminated soil and buildings had triggered respiratory illness, migraines – and cancer. “I’ve played on that quad, rolled around in the grass, for years,” said freshman Jason Daniels. “Why wasn’t I warned?”

Several classes were moved on Wednesday to other parts of the campus and a nearby elementary school, while inspectors tested for contamination.

Twenty faculty members sounded the alarm last week in a letter which said three teachers had been recently diagnosed with stage 1 thyroid cancer, another three had thyroid problems, and seven suffered migraines. The letter also cited incidents of hair loss, rashes and bladder cancer.

“These teachers believe their health has been adversely affected as a result of working in our particular buildings at Malibu high school,” Katy Lapajne, a language arts teacher, wrote in the letter.

The teachers pointed the finger at the removal in 2011 of 1,017 cubic yards of soil allegedly contaminated with toxic chemicals, notably polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), which had been used decades ago to tackle termites. They also suspected mould in several buildings.

A day earlier, Sandra Lyon, the superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu unified school district, addressed the auditorium audience while media trucks waited outside. “You have heard serious and alarming allegations. These reports have mushroomed in our community.”

The school had begun testing for air and soil contamination last month, said Lyon. She apologised for not communicating that before the teachers’ letter forced the issue into the open, but said there was no evidence students were at risk. “We know they are safe, just as much as you know that your house is safe.”

Few seemed reassured. Questions rained down. Would inspectors test for radioactivity? Where was the mould? Was the water safe? Did inspectors have PhDs? How advanced were the cancer cases?

Several parents cited having children with cancer and other ailments, prompting Lucas, the mother of two students, to ask how many suffered migraines. The show of hands seemed to convince many of an epidemic.

One emotional freshman, Tristan Peterson, accused Lyon and other officials of lying. “I am not a liar,” she replied.

Parents did not go that far. “Cover-up, I think, is too strong. It was more putting their head in the sand and hoping for the best,” said Michael Campolo, a labour lawyer. “This is a fantastic school,” he added. “Really high rankings, great staff.”

Wealthy and well connected parents said they had launched their own investigations, consulting friends in the Environmental Protection Agency, oncologists in Beverly Hills, and toxicology specialists in Santa Monica.

“My doctor told me to pull my kids right out of there,” said one mother, who declined to be named. The evidence of a cancer cluster, she added, was overwhelming.

John Froines, a chemical toxicology expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was too soon to draw any conclusions. “The information is inadequate at present. It should be a high priority to investigate this further, which is what they are doing.”

He cautioned against directly linking PCBs, or any other chemical, to thyroid illnesses. “Lots of chemicals are associated with thyroid issues. It would be completely speculative to even list them.”

PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and studies in humans provide supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects, according to the EPA.

A 2010 study found that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a common household chemical found in everything from sofas and carpets to pots and pans, has been linked to an increased risk of thyroid disease.


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