Is Your Kids’ School Making Them Sick?

American Schools Built On Landfills, Long Island Moms Speak Out

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As families across the country get ready for children to go back to school after a challenging year of remote and hybrid learning, some parents are faced with an even greater challenge: toxic schools.

Big thanks to Tara Mackey, who spoke with Erin last year about Northport Middle School after her daughter and her classmates kept getting sick. She introduced us to Caroline Wilkinson and Nancy Dodge, two moms also on Long Island, also dealing with sick children. Does anyone see a problem there?  

The Town of Brookhaven Landfill began operating in 1974. The first case of cancer at Frank P. Long Intermediate School was found in 1998. Since then, 35 staff have been diagnosed with cancer and more than 20 people have died.

For context, about 5 to 8 percent of all cancers worldwide are caused by exposures to carcinogens in the workplace, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which is equivalent to up to 8 people out of 100.

And the kids are sick too. They are many unexplained illnesses and the children complain of rashes, stomachaches, headaches, vertigo, and more.  

The school sits in the shadow of the massive 276-foot landfill. It’s also near a sewage treatment system, a power plant, and a compost facility.

Caroline grew up in this area and attended the same school as her son. It’s a small school for fourth and fifth grade students only.

Her son had no underlying health conditions (other than dyslexia) before attending the school from 2015-2017. In his first year, he started having vocal ticks, which stopped during the summer break. In fifth grade, he started to get sick and throw up in school. He lost a ton of weight. He was getting rashes and bad headaches. It got so bad that every time he would walk, he would throw up, so he had to be seated in a wheelchair.

Getting Connected

“We went to every specialist and countless doctors,” she recalled. “Then one day in May, I happened to see something on Facebook in a parent group, talking about Frank P. Long, and they were saying things like mysterious rashes and all these different things.”

She quickly got a hold of one of the teachers, She contacted the school district, and found out that they had done testing. It took 30 days for them to send it to her.

“When I did get the results, I found out that there were high levels of benzene and just a potpourri of all these different kind of chemicals,” she said. The report showed 24 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), PCBs, radon, and other toxins.

As Caroline was searching for answers, she learned about several teachers who had been working on a color-coded map of the school tracking these problems room by room.

“In one classroom, five teachers all got cancer,” she said. “In another one they all had mysterious autoimmune issues with rashes or vertigo. Every single room had something in it.”

She also talked about how the school closes down at recess—the kids can’t go outside because the smell is so bad.

The school did eventually follow-up on parents and staff concerns and took on additional environmental testing.

The investigation concluded that all parameters assessed were normal for a school building, and in general, the results of the indoor samples were unremarkable and typical of what is found in indoor air. The results were reviewed and supported by the New York State Department of Health.

The community had many questions about the integrity of the testing and the quick conclusions offered by the school.  

“The company performed it on days when the wind was going in the opposite direction—away from the landfill,” she said. “We also found out later, they lowered the sensitivity for what it should be…. I know there was a private meeting with our school district, the department of health and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and in that, the superintendent admitted to me that they said they have separate guidelines for people by the school district.”

Essentially, less stringent guidelines were used and the guidelines did not take into account exposure levels for children. Each VOC was evaluated independently, and the combined effects were not taken into consideration.

More Problems Discovered

But as the community continued to look into these issues they found more disturbing information. As far back at the 1990s, radioactive ash has been dumped at the landfill. Currently, a whistleblower lawsuit against Covanta alleges radioactive ash from the company was dumped at the Brookhaven Landfill.

“These children came into that school healthy and I don't think these medical issues are 'typical' of a 4th and 5th grade population of students,” Nancy wrote in a 2020 letter to health department and school officials. “I also really don't think all of these individuals are just unlucky. How do you tell those sick children the school is safe? How are parents supposed to feel safe sending younger siblings to that school when the time comes? How are the siblings of those sickened at FPL supposed to walk into that school confident about their own safety?”

Caroline and Nancy started a community organization called KREET (Kids Rights to Environmental Equity Today).

There’s also a documentary about the mysterious illnesses at the school called Sick School (you can watch it on Amazon).

In the midst of this mess, a scientist came to talk with them about radon in the water, telling them there’s a plume coming from the landfill. She contacted all of her neighbors who independently tested their water and everyone found radon in their drinking water.

“We live on sand, there’s supposed to be no naturally occurring radon in our drinking water,” she said. “We found out that Suffolk County Water Authority was blending the water, aka mixing “good” water with “bad” water from different wells. You can read more about it here.

Back to School

Many times, communities and people are called crazy when they try to understand the connection between hazardous waste and their health.

Caroline is no exception. She’s been called a “fearmonger.” She’s been called a “hysterical mom.”

And in the meantime, Caroline is still searching to try to figure out what's wrong with her son. He has seen more than 100 doctors and alternative specialists. He just spent seven months in the hospital. He’s now home recovering.

The first day of school at Frank P. Long is looming—September 1, 2021.

Frank P. Long’s mission statement is “to provide a safe, engaging, challenging, and supportive learning environment, where students become college and career ready in a multicultural community. The Frank P. Long team joins parents and the community to support students in fostering skills to become safe, respectful, and responsible citizens. Together we can build a community of critical thinkers that are prepared for a global society.”

This story is about officials protecting themselves, not listening to the concerns of the community. How can so many teachers and students be so unlucky?  

Someone decided to put a landfill in a community with a school. Someone made a deal to put dangerous toxins in the landfill. Who will be held accountable and who can clean it up? Everyone wants to kick the can down the line or say that some other agency is responsible.

This is the mess we have inherited in America today.

We need laws that protect children, so that no parent has to go through this ordeal. We need more studies understanding the combined effects of chemical exposures on children and vulnerable populations.

Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below… Tell us what you think! Shocked or business as usual?