Toxic Town: Contamination in Somerville Schools

Somerville's schools continue to show elevated toxins, but are the health risks bad enough to shut down the schools?

At three o'clock last Monday afternoon, Adriel Carter sat in a line of cars outside Somerville Elementary School waiting to pick up her three kids, ages five to ten.

A few weeks earlier, environmental test results had revealed elevated levels of arsenic, dioxin and other known carcinogens in areas throughout the orange-brick, single-story school building that may be linked to toxic emissions from the massive, century-old wood-treatment plant set less than a mile away.

Sixth grader Herbchelle Plumber, who spent a couple days in the Somerville school district's Behavior Management Center, said it smelled so bad she wanted to throw up.
Todd Spivak
Sixth grader Herbchelle Plumber, who spent a couple days in the Somerville school district's Behavior Management Center, said it smelled so bad she wanted to throw up.

It marked the third time in five months the Somerville schools in East Central Texas had been tested for dangerous toxins. The latest test, authorized by the Somerville Independent School District, showed contamination levels higher even than those at the World Trade Center site.

Carter knew almost nothing about the testing.

She had no clue that during school hours on December 5, 2007, a team of four environmental scientists from Texas A&M University's School of Rural Public Health collected dust samples from eight locations in various school buildings, including the elementary and junior high schools.

Some of the worst contamination was found in the Behavior Management Center, a brightly painted converted house used to isolate students with disciplinary problems. The school district shuttered the building earlier this year, apparently due to environmental-health risks, without informing parents.

Carter and many other parents only learned about the most recent test results by reading about them in the local newspaper. A front-page story appeared in the Burleson County Tribune with the unnerving headline, "SISD attic toxin levels comparable to WTC."

"I don't know what's going on," says Carter, a former Houston resident who has lived in Somerville for 12 years. "Nobody's talking to us. Maybe the schools don't want parents to know."

SISD Superintendent Charles Camarillo authorized the environmental testing in Somerville schools last December. But when the final report was completed this year on February 22, Camarillo refused to release it to the public for two weeks — though it was funded by taxpayer dollars — and forced the media to submit public-information requests to receive copies.

And, now, Camarillo refuses to speak about it at all.

"Through advice from counsel I am not granting anyone any interviews," Camarillo wrote the Houston Press in a March 17 e-mail.

Camarillo, though, has issued a press release on the A&M study, writing that he is "happy that the report showed that our school environment is largely free from dangerous levels of toxins."

And the district Web site now includes a flash bulletin that reads, in its entirety: "Our schools appear to be safe for our staff to work and our students to learn. This is the results [sic] of the independent study."

Camarillo, a 38-year-old San Antonio native now in his third year in his first-ever job as a school-district superintendent, has repeatedly demonstrated a penchant for secrecy.

For instance, when Camarillo first let scientists into the schools to conduct environmental testing last summer, he made the decision without informing parents, students, teachers or even school-board members.

In July 2007, environmental scientists retained by Houston-based law firm Woodfill & Pressler LLP discovered grossly elevated levels of contamination in the attics of several school buildings, characterized the situation as a public-health emergency and recommended the immediate evacuation of the schools ["Suffer the Children" by Todd Spivak, December 6, 2007].

In November 2007, scientists hired by the current and former owners of the wood-treatment facility — Pittsburgh-based Koppers Inc. and Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway — reported that the schools were safe based on samples taken in classrooms and hallways where contamination levels were lowest due to frequent ­cleaning.

In an interview last fall with the Houston Press, Camarillo said he was skeptical about both studies since they were being used in ongoing litigation.

Hundreds of Somerville residents are suing the current and former owners of the wood-treatment facility, alleging that toxic emissions from the plant have caused severe health problems including aggressive cancers and rare birth defects ["Toxic Town" by Todd Spivak, December 6, 2007]. The cancer risk is tripled for children under 16 exposed to such toxins, according to a 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.

School-board members urged Camarillo to call for an "independent study" conducted by scientists at A&M. But even the study's lead investigator, Dr. Kirby Donnelly, head of the university's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, admits it did not resolve the question of whether the school buildings are safe.

According to Donnelly, the study was "very limited in scope" due to financial constraints. The A&M study was funded by a research grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The school district paid for the laboratory analysis, estimated to cost about $5,000.

To cut costs, Donnelly took swipe samples — a low-tech method in which a cloth is soaked with isopropyl alcohol and wiped on the floor — then compared the data with apartment buildings in New York City near the World Trade Center site.

The EPA offers no guidelines for measuring toxic chemicals taken from swipe samples, Donnelly says.

The A&M scientists collected dust samples from the hallways in the junior high school and the Behavior Management Center, though most were taken in the elementary school. No testing was performed in the high school since the floors had been recently waxed, Donnelly says.

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