7 On Your Side Investigates: Hazardous chemicals stored below Long Island school's classrooms

7 On Your Side Investigates: Hazardous chemicals stored below Long Island school's classrooms
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Danielle Leigh reports on the hazardous chemicals stored below one Long Island school.

NORTHPORT, Suffolk County (WABC) -- Renovations are set to begin this summer at a middle school with years of documented air quality concerns in the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District.

The improvements focused on the k-wing of Northport Middle School in Suffolk County are intended in part to address remediation of volatile organic compounds detected at levels above a typical New York home and, at times, above New York State Health guidelines.

Superintendent Robert Banzer ordered the k-wing of the school closed in 2017 after complaints about a "persistent smell" revealed the district had been storing hazardous chemicals and, occasionally, a vehicle in a warehouse below classrooms.

Among the potential toxins detected in the classrooms was cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) at levels above New York State health guidelines.

Potential sources of TCE include adhesives, paint/spot removers, solvents and degreasers.

Multiple parents with students who attend or have attended NMS complained that their children developed unusual sinus issues, severe asthma and chronic headaches that seemed to improve during summer breaks or after moving to a new school.

Parents further complained that poor conditions at the school, including a leaky roof, have contributed to water damage, mold and mildew, which further exasperated their children's symptoms.

Lynette Odell said her daughter, Ryleigh, had mild asthma already, but her symptoms intensified after entering Northport Middle School.

"She started getting sick, and we started noticing a pattern," Odell said. "It's enough when she is out of school 22 days in one quarter because she is coughing so hard she is throwing up."

Ryleigh now uses a special inhaler to control the symptoms that Odell blames on the school's air quality issues.

The latest complaints follow years of documented concerns about pollution at NMS.

In 2000, John Kobel, a teacher at the school, had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance after breathing in what an incident report called "chemical pollution from a damaged cesspool."

"I collapsed in the building," he said. "It was an acute asthmatic attack, and before that day, I didn't have diagnosed asthma."

Kobel, now retired, continues to suffer from various respiratory ailments that he attributes to pollution at the school.

The same year that Kobel collapsed, more than a dozen Health and Safety Incident Reports documented complaints about strong odors, difficulty breathing, headaches, itchy eyes and even chest pains.

An inspection of the school in December 2000 by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services found issues with heating and ventilation. In addition, it identified a possible defect with the school septic system that could allow toxins to seep back into classrooms.

A separate inspection in September 2001 found the school had engaged in "unpermitted discharge of toxic or hazardous materials," into the school cesspool.

The Health Department ordered the school to remediate the issue.

Concerns about toxins and pollution resurfaced in 2011, with another Health and Safety Incident Report describing similar ailments to those experienced by students and teachers in 2000, and describing smells that made people "feel dizzy and sick."

According to district documents, "maintenance staff treat it as a plumbing issue."

"It's a shame," Kobel said.

So when complaints about a persistent smell resurfaced again in 2017, parents began to wonder whether the school had taken past warnings seriously.

A health department inspection identified a warehouse below classrooms used to store a vehicle and hazardous chemicals used by the district as the likely source of the problem.

"When I found out there was a warehouse beneath a wing in that building that housed the district's chemicals, I found it completely incredulous," said Melissa Stratigos, a Northport parent.

Parents like Stratigos and Odell also worried about their previously healthy kids, who they say began experiencing severe asthma and chronic headaches after enrolling in NMS.

"The amount of people affected with these illnesses in a small area, there is no way there is not a reason for that having happened," said Tara Mackey, whose daughter attends NMS. "I blame myself every time I go to sleep and hear her cough. The evidence is there. Somebody has to do something."

Teachers, like Kobel, also worry that cancers, miscarriages and respiratory illnesses they developed after years in the building are somehow related to pollution at the school.

Superintendent Robert Banzer refused to talk with 7 On Your Side Investigates in person but in multiple district meetings, he admitted the district should have done better.

"This is not our best moment by any stretch of the imagination," Banzer said during a district meeting. "So it's an opportunity to make systematic changes, to make things right."

In a later meeting, Banzer reiterated that sentiment saying, "I understand the anxiety that is out there, and I understand that, in terms of trust, we have taken some steps back."

Banzer closed the classrooms with the most exposure to the hazardous chemicals, he ordered an environmental audit of school buildings, implemented more rigorous policies around the use of chemicals using the Environmental Protection Agency's "Tools for Schools" program, and he called on doctors who told parents not to worry.

A report by the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit indicated that "the most important step moving forward is to optimize indoor air quality in all school buildings district-wide to promote health and well-being of students and teachers."

The report added that symptoms from "short-term exposure to some VOCs ... usually go away soon after the exposure stops," but that long-term exposure can result in long-term health effects.

The report implied that lasting health impacts in students were unlikely based on the results from air quality tests PEHSU reviewed.

Odell and other parents said their children continue to experience respiratory ailments, and they are not confident the district has remediated the toxic chemicals despite follow up testing that did not detect concerning levels of VOCs in other parts of the building.

Toxic Chemical Consultant Harold Zeliger cautioned the district has not done enough testing to be certain the school is free of concerning chemicals.

"The only way to determine that is to do a long-range testing program, at least a year," Zeliger said. "The difficulty is we don't know what lies underneath the building."

The Northport-East Northport Union Free School District school board voted against a proposed long-range study and decided to instead focus the district's efforts on implementing new policies moving forward.

In a statement, a district spokesperson wrote: "The School District is committed to maintaining good indoor air quality within its facilities for the health, safety and comfort of its staff and students."

A New York State Department of Health inspection recommended the district retest NMS for any air quality concerns following the renovations and before "the reopening of the school in September."

An NYSDOH spokesperson added that it was the county health department, not the state, taking the lead.

But when 7 On Your Side Investigates asked the Suffolk County health department about whether the agency was monitoring the district's activities to ensure remediation of pollution concerns, a spokesperson replied in a statement that it did not have authority to enforce compliance.

"While the Suffolk County Department of Health Services has on several occasions conducted site visits at the middle school upon request, the purpose was to make observations and recommendations relating to indoor air quality. Since SCDHS does not have jurisdiction over the buildings and grounds of school buildings, it does not have the authority to enforce compliance with these recommendations except in those specific circumstances which pertain to Suffolk County Sanitary Code," wrote spokesperson Grace Kelly-McGovern.

A district spokesperson said the school plans to conduct the recommended air quality tests before reopening the school's k-wing this fall.

Concerned parents want the district to close the school or grant them their children a transfer, but so far, the district has refused to do either.

A district spokesperson declined requests by 7 On Your Side Investigates to explain why.

Parents said despite the district efforts, their trust in district leadership has been permanently damaged.

"I don't trust anyone in the district anymore because of it," said Brittany Watts, another Northport parent.

"How do you make yourself feel okay about that?" Odell asked. "You don't."

Hear from parents describing their concerns and the ailments their children have experienced:


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