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Safety concern for portable classrooms

Poor air quality in portable classrooms may make children sick, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group.

The report said the 86,500 portable rooms in use in California’s schools may be a source of airborne toxins such as formaldehyde and other cancer-causing chemicals found in glues and carpets used in the structures. According to Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group based out of Washington, D.C., short-term exposure to these chemicals can cause nausea, headaches and diarrhea. Long-term exposure may increase a child’s lifetime risk of cancer by two to three times the level that is acceptable by federal law.

The report was released May 28 at the State Capitol in Sacramento and at a San Fernando Valley school, where students and teachers were made sick from exposure to the chemicals found in the portable classrooms.



Environmental Working Group’s report was a compilation and interpretation of literature about air quality found in structures similar to portable classrooms, such as mobile homes.

“There have been very few tests done on actual portable classrooms,” said Zev Ross, an Environmental Working Group analyst. “The literature showed that the related structures have a tendency to build up toxins because of the materials used in construction like carpeting and glues and they typically have fewer windows and less airflow. Some of the problems can be fixed with something as simple as turning on the ventilating system.”




One toxicology report showed that some of the children who attended class in a portable room in the Saugus Union School District showed elevated levels of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals used to construct prefabricated buildings.

The Healthy Schools Act (AB1207), authored by Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley of San Francisco, could force the state into testing standards.

Passed by the Assembly on June 2, the Healthy Schools Act would prohibit the use of some pesticides on school facilities, require the state to test for lead in school’s drinking water and provide training materials to teachers and school administrators about air quality in the portable classrooms.

Judy George, administrative assistant for the chief financial officer of Lake Tahoe Unified School District, said the district already takes measures to reduce exposure to toxins in its 87 portable classrooms.

“We heat the new portables for three days to over 90 degrees to burn off the odor from glues,” she said. “Then we ventilate the room and we don’t allow the kids to go in there right away.”

Superintendent Rich Alexander said once the classes are in use, the ventilation systems are checked on a regular basis.

Many of the portable classrooms were added to California schools when class-size reduction mandates went into effect in 1997.

That was the reason LTUSD added 26 portables to its school facilities two years ago.

George said the district opted for portable classrooms instead of new structures because, at $48,000 each, they’re less expensive than building a new structure and they can be relocated to other sites when needs change.

“I’m not aware of any complaints or phone calls from parents concerning (the issue),” said Nancy Tesh, administrative assistant for the facilities department in LTUSD.

Tesh said that a few staff members have called during the past week, since the report was issued, to ask questions about the report.

Superintendent Alexander said any problems concerning air quality should be reported to the school principal.

BREAK OUT BOX

Lake Tahoe Unified School District portable classrooms

Al Tahoe Elementary 15

Bijou Elementary 10

Meyers Elementary 6

Sierra House Elementary 7

Tahoe Valley Elementary 9

South Tahoe Middle School 18

South Tahoe High School 22


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