The Snohomish Health District recently issued a list of requirements to the Monroe School District for expediting remediation of indoor air quality issues identified at the Sky Valley Education Center (SVEC).

The SVEC campus on Short Columbia Street near downtown Monroe has undergone extensive air quality testing since January, after numerous individuals reported illness. According to the health district, more than 70 parents, teachers and students have reported symptoms they associate with the building.

The health district’s requirements were issued on the heels of the Indoor Air Quality Assessment Report, completed in April by industrial hygiene firm PBS Engineering & Environmental. 

A wide variety of symptoms have been reported by parents whose kids have become ill, including burning throat, headaches, thyroid issues, persistent cough, stomach pain, early puberty and nosebleeds. There are reportedly two teachers out on medical leave, but the district is prohibited from discussing their symptoms due to privacy laws.

To initiate the study, PBS industrial hygienist Gregg Middaugh completed a walkthrough that involved thorough exploration of the school, analysis of documented concerns and consultation with staff, teachers and parents.

“We made sure that anyone who had a concern had time to discuss their concern with the company,” said Monroe School District Director of Communications Rosemary O’Neil.

The process took longer than originally anticipated, in order to give Middaugh time to receive feedback from everyone that wanted to provide it. Assistant Superintendent John Mannix granted him the additional time, saying he knew it would make a better-informed study.  

“I authorized him to just take all the time necessary to do that, and we ended up spending 3 ½ to four weeks instead of three to four days,” Mannix said.

Once the walkthrough was completed, extensive environmental testing took place. Nearly 1,000 pages of test results were produced, examining water quality and looking for asbestos, mold, PCBs and numerous other contaminants. The reports were presented during a community meeting in April that was attended by about 100 parents, plus officials from the school district, the health district and the Washington State Department of Health.

The Snohomish Health District Environmental Health Division issued a list of remediation requirements to the school district on April 25, including access restrictions in specific rooms for pregnant mothers and kids under the age of six and removal of all PCB-containing calk, paint and light fixtures. It encouraged the district’s ongoing mitigation efforts, including deep cleaning of the entire school, unit ventilator inspections and the hiring of a full-time custodial staff.

“Many of the housekeeping issues at the school have been pointed out in routine Health and Safety Inspections in the past,” stated the letter. “To this end, the Health District supports your action to hire an additional custodian and work on de-cluttering and cleaning up any mold issues in the school.”

The health district plans to conduct a site review during the first week in August to confirm that housekeeping issues identified in the PBS report have been addressed.

In the case of the PCB-containing materials, the health district gave the school district until Aug. 1 to complete the required actions, including removing PCB-containing calk, paint and light ballasts. But in some cases, said the school district, the remedial efforts were underway or had already taken place by the time the requirements were issued.

In its May 3 letter to SVEC staff and families, the school district pointed out that the health district was unaware of a number of mitigating activities that had occurred since the release of the PBS report.

“The letter is written in response to the test results acquired by PBS Environmental in January, February and March, and is therefore significantly out of date in terms of conditions at this point in time,” the district states.

The school district has not taken any of this lightly, O’Neil said.

“We didn’t just sit on our hands and wait for a piece of paper,” she said. “We took immediate action when something was identified.”

That action included the removal of PCB-containing magnetic light-ballasts, Mannix said, which began in March and was completed in April. PCBs, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used in industrial manufacturing until 1976, when they were banned by U.S. Congress for their toxic effects. The disposal of PCBs is guided by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) best practices.

The school district used an electronic tool that identified the ballasts containing PCBs by distinguishing the magnetic ballasts, which could have PCBs, from the electronic ballasts, which do not. Upon learning that some magnetic ballasts with the factory label “No PCBs” could actually still contain PCBs, the district made the decision to remove all magnetic light ballasts from the school.

Additionally, staff examined light fixtures in several areas to look for any evidence of PCB-containing residue. Staff was trained in EPA guidelines to ensure removal and cleanup efforts were done in accordance with recommended procedures. 

The school district is conducting research to discover best practices for the removal of the PCB-containing paint in the SVEC Gathering Room and the PCB-containing calk that was identified in some areas of the school, Mannix said. Having to remove PCB-containing paint and calk is not something that he’s dealt with in more than 30 years of working in school facilities, and the district is working diligently to discern the appropriate remedial actions to ensure that it’s done right, O’Neil added.

“Some of these things are things that we were able to move forward on already,” O’Neil said. “Others are going to take more time, unfortunately, but that’s what we have to do to get it right for kids.”

To read the health district’s letter, click here. For more information on the PBS results, click here.