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Classroom toxins spark lawsuit against state, Monroe schools, Monsanto

The families say they suffered a variety of health problems after being exposed to toxic chemicals at Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe.

Nearly forty families are suing the state of Washington, the Monroe School District and Monsanto over highly toxic chemicals found in classrooms. Children, teachers and parents coping with adverse medical effects blame their health problems on poisoning at one school.

According to the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court, the Sky Valley Education Center documented contamination in 2016 but issues date back years.

Three mothers appeared for a press conference on Wednesday at the Friedman Rubin law firm in downtown Seattle. One was a teacher at Sky Valley.

"This is a case and a public safety issue that I believe deserves widespread attention," said attorney Sean Gamble.

The chemicals are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of PCBs, outlawed in the 1970s. Monsanto promoted the chemicals, Gamble said, without alerting anyone of their harmful nature.

Stacy Mullen-Deland was a Spanish teacher at Sky Valley and a parent of children who attended the school. She and her kids often suffered sore throat issues but would feel better when they weren't there, she says. They loved the school and were reluctant to believe it was the problem.

"Really dry mouth, sore throats," Mullen-Deland said. "That quickly turned into asthma for my son."

All doctors they saw, she says, reported they were suffering from chemical poisoning. She says her son was so weak he could barely walk. He had to be on heart medication for six months. Her daughter had regular nose bleeds. She missed school often, they were so bad. She hasn't had one since they left.

"I just never expected that for my kids," Mullen-Deland cried. "You couldn't get me to step foot in that building."

They complained to the school administration, but to no avail, she says. In early 2016, she says they begged them to get the school out of the building.

Up to 14 million students nationwide may be exposed to PCBs in schools, Gamble said.

The lawsuit also holds Washington state and the Monroe School District accountable, claiming both knew PCBs in school buildings could cause health issues, according to a 2006 study done by the state. In 2007, a survey came out on these school buildings, finding the facility's level of deterioration was the most severe in the school district, known to be contaminated by PCBs. Instead of closing down, the Monroe School District continued education in the facility.

Despite state law requirements for safety, Gamble said, the school buildings remained open. PCBs were in the light ballasts and caulking, and as the infrastructure deteriorated, the chemicals released into the air.

Gamble calls the light ballasts "toxic hand grenades" due to their off-gassing issues. They can drip PCB fluids onto desks and carpets as well.

An inspector also found radon, lead and asbestos among other toxins, but Gamble says the lawsuit is focusing on PCBs because they're the most dangerous.

Over 100 people reported health issues due to the buildings over the years, but Monroe waited until 2016 to take action.

"The state and local governmental agencies failed the Sky Valley community," Gamble said.

Health issues reported include autoimmune problems, neurological disorders, breathing and cardiac problems, thyroid and endocrine disorders, skin problems, developmental disorders in children, even the early onset of puberty, reproductive disorders, stomach pain, liver damage, vision problems and nausea.

In the summer of 2016, the health department ordered remediation of the buildings. KING 5 spoke with a mother outside the school on Wednesday. She says staff has been very open about the renovations and she feels her child is now safe.

Jill Savery disagrees. She told the story of her two children, also students at Sky Valley. They attended from 2011 until 2016.

One of her daughters repeatedly got headaches and stomachaches which turned to rashes and insomnia. Her youngest daughter had severe skin peeling. They loved the school program though, because parents could be involved in their kids daily lives. It felt like a second home.

"But in a facility that was poisoning us," Savery said. "We trusted every single person who was involved in moving us into that building."

Eventually, her daughter had seizures at school. Savery says she is appalled at how the situation has been handled by the school district and the state.

"It has forever changed many people's lives," she said. "How dare that happen. We're trusting you."

The attorney for the Monroe School District released this statement:

"... Air quality concerns at the Sky Valley Education Center, including potential polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contamination, were first raised during the 2013-2014 school year. In compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines, the District identified and cleaned all potentially effected fixtures. Since then, the District has aggressively and proactively worked to address all possible air quality concerns, including PCBs, at the SVEC. This includes engaging numerous environmental consulting agencies to perform advanced indoor air quality testing, ensuring consistent compliance with all relevant state and federal laws, and replacing and retrofitting aging portions of the building as needed. The District also restricted access to certain spaces in the facility while additional testing and updates were completed, in order to ensure the absolute safety of its students and staff. The District has been transparent about its efforts and has provided regular updates to the SVEC community regarding the many steps it has taken to address these concerns. The District's number one priority and commitment is the safety of its students and staff, and the District has continued to comprehensively monitor the air quality within the facility, even after recent testing indicated no detectable levels of PCBs."

Monsanto released this statement from Scott Partridge, vice president of corporate strategy:

“More than 40 years ago, the former Monsanto voluntarily stopped production and sale of PCBs prior to any federal requirement to do so. At the time Monsanto manufactured PCBs, they were a legal and approved product used in many useful applications. Monsanto continues to review the allegations contained in the complaint, but we believe we will find that this case lacks merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

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