Last January, a former teacher at Laurel Bay’s Galer Elementary School wrote to military officials after a YouTube video of a parent, concerned that her child’s cancer might have been connected to their time living in the military community, went viral.
“Many of my colleagues have had serious health issues,” the unidentified teacher said in her email, obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
She went on to describe black mold reaching halfway up a wooden coat rack in the classroom where she taught.
“I realize there was an air quality study a few years back,” the teacher wrote in her email. “But that was several years after some of the worse conditions were remedied to some extent.
“Many of us still suspect that some of our health problems may be the result of our work environments.”
Run by the U.S. Department of Defense, Laurel Bay’s two oldest schools — Galer Elementary and Bolden Elementary/Middle School — serve children of military families living on the base.
The military disputes that the school buildings impacted staff members’ health, pointing to tests done in 2011 and 2012 that showed no dangerous levels of a known carcinogen, according to standards set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
But under different standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three rooms in one of the schools had excessive levels of benzene. Experts say EPA standards are more protective of students’ and teachers’ health than OSHA’s.
Everybody who works in those buildings is concerned. I just wish they could get to the bottom of it.
Gray Hurt, former Bolden Elementary/Middle School employee
An exact number, or even an estimate, of Laurel Bay teachers who had serious medical conditions while working in the schools was unavailable. Neither union officials who represent the staff members nor a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense schools division would provide an estimate to the Packet and Gazette in 2010.
A current military spokeswoman, who required all questions by the newspapers to be submitted via email, recently wrote that a confirmed number of diagnoses is “unknown.”
“The investigators indicated higher-than-average breast cancer diagnosis in the years prior to the study,” said Department of Defense Education Activity spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis. “No other major medical trends have been reported recently.”
Myrtle Robinson, who spent 37 years working as a speech pathologist for Laurel Bay schools before retiring in 2016, recently told the newspapers she got cancer in 1999, recovered and went back to work, only to face another type of cancer in 2010.
Robinson said she doesn’t believe her cancer was connected to where she worked. But she wonders about the many other teachers and employees struck by cancer or other medical illnesses while working at Galer or Bolden.
She described green mold climbing down from the ceiling tiles — and being told it was from the electrical line.
“I believed them,” Robinson said.
In 2010, a number of teachers and other staff at both Galer and Bolden schools approached their union, alarmed by the number of employees being diagnosed with serious illnesses and infertility issues. About 80 staff members worked in the two schools around that time.
The military said it did not know how many employees requested an investigation into the schools, though Kanellis told the Packet and Gazette that the number is “believed to be as many as nine.”
In the summer of 2010, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control ruled out contamination at the schools from drinking water or asbestos.
Worries about the schools reappeared last January. That’s when the wife of a U.S. Marine previously stationed at Parris Island posted the YouTube video, describing the 2015 leukemia diagnosis of her daughter, Katie Whatley. Amanda Whatley’s family lived on Laurel Bay from 2007 until 2010, and she questioned the connection the base played in her daughter’s diagnosis.
In an email sent to military officials shortly after the video went viral, a parent asked: “Are the same precautions being taken at the schools? School-aged children often ... spend more time at school then they do at home so I feel it is equally as important to ensure they have a safe environment.”
A Q&A sheet provided to residents reported no soil vapor sampling was done at the schools because both sites had “no or very low detections” of heating oil in soil or groundwater. Vapor intrusion occurs when chemical vapors migrate from contaminated groundwater through the soil into the basements or foundations of buildings. These chemical vapors can degrade indoor air, sometimes to the point of posing risks to human health.
For decades, Laurel Bay schools and homes were heated with oil from underground storage tanks — many of which were corroding before they were eventually removed, according to records reviewed by the Packet and Gazette.
In a recent interview, Larry Schnapf, an environmental business lawyer and adjunct professor of environmental law at New York Law School, said he disagreed with the military’s decision to forgo soil vapor testing at Laurel Bay schools.
“If you have low levels of (chemicals in) groundwater or soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no vapor intrusion,” he said. “You can have low levels under the building that can evaporate but build up under the building.”
Above EPA levels
Sampling of the schools’ indoor air was done in 2010. Just two of Laurel Bay’s roughly 1,100 homes underwent similar tests recently, records reviewed by the newspapers show.
Benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected inside three Galer rooms — Room A1, AE4 and the library — above EPA’s target levels, according to records.
While the military acknowledges this fact, officials repeatedly said benzene levels fell below OSHA’s recommendation.
However, OSHA regulations are almost always more lax than those of the EPA, said Jill Johnston, an environmental health professor at the University of Southern California.
Johnston said OSHA standards are typically applied to a healthy working adult population, but children are a particularly susceptible population.
“It would not be appropriate to apply OSHA standards to children,” she said, noting that children typically are rapidly growing and have a higher breathing rate.
The executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight — a California-based nonprofit that promotes community oversight of cleanup at military facilities across the U.S. — agreed.
In an email to the newspapers, director Lenny Siegel said it was “unacceptable to say that kids are at less risk because they are not at school 24-7, because they might be returning to homes where they are also exposed.”
“OSHA standards are designed for people who are trained to work with chemicals, not teachers and school staff,” he added.
The EPA also does not recommend using OSHA’s recommended levels in determining human health risk by vapor intrusion pathways or supporting issuance of “no-further-action” determinations for petroleum vapor intrusion — which is the exact declaration made by the military.
Kanellis, of the Department of Defense Education Activity agency, offered alternative explanations for the benzene detection: “It is possible that (chemicals) were detected by temporary conditions in these three rooms that had recently been cleaned (janitorial cleaning supplies), had paint drying on a student project/display, or recently been treated for pest/insect control.”
Experts acknowledge indoor air testing is highly variable, and that chemicals in common household items, such as cleaning supplies, can lead to “false positives.”
From 2010 to 2017, the Department of Defense schools division made a concerted effort to improve Laurel Bay schools’ air quality by hiring a full-time maintenance contractor who specializes in HVAC systems and replacing parts of HVAC systems, such as filters, on a more frequent basis, Kanellis said.
‘Get to the bottom of it’
Other health-related issues have emerged in recent years.
Lead testing done in 2014 resulted in replacement of “some” sink faucets and drinking fountains within the schools, said Bill Drawdy, environmental director for Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Dave Wilson, the Air Station’s logistics officer, said the testing was simply a Department of Defense-wide effort to test for lead in primary school areas and unrelated to concerns raised by Laurel Bay employees.
Kanellis offered a different account of that year.
Prompted by a leaking water main line under the foundation slab at Galer, an investigation resulted in the replacement of 14 faucets at Galer and one at Bolden, Kanellis said. During the three-month period when repairs were made, the Department of Defense schools division halted the use of water fountains, requiring students and staff to drink from water bottles or a potable water tank that was installed, she said.
“All water fixtures passed lead tests in April 2014,” Kanellis said.
The Department of Defense Education Activity agency does not know when — or even if — testing was done on the schools before 2010 when employees made their concerns public.
“Everybody who works in those buildings is concerned,” Gray Hurt, a Bolden employee, told The Beaufort Gazette then.
Hurt, who taught for 21 years at Bolden, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the year before.
“I just wish they could get to the bottom of it,” the Lady’s Island resident told the newspaper in March 2010.
She died five months later.
Getting to “the bottom of it” may prove difficult.
Galer, which housed preschool through second grade, closed this summer and is scheduled to be demolished in 2018.
This school year, about 230 Galer students were moved to Elliott Elementary, the only school for the Laurel Bay military community that didn’t have contamination issues raised. The building was constructed in 2004.
Bolden, a school serving grades three through eight, is scheduled to be demolished in 2019. Both schools were on the military's calendar for replacement because of their “aging facilities,” records show.
Health scare at Laurel Bay schools
In 2010, employees at two Laurel Bay schools became alarmed about the number of staffers being diagnosed with cancer and other serious illnesses.
▪ Bolden Elementary/Middle School, which was originally named Laurel Bay Intermediate School, was built in 1962. Additions were built in 1963, 2001 and 2002. The school serves third through eighth grade. The building is scheduled to be demolished in 2019. Construction for its replacement school is expected to wrap sometime between May and October 2018.
▪ Galer Elementary School was built in 1957 and expanded in 2002. The school served grades pre-kindergarten through second before closing in the summer of 2017. Roughly 230 students moved to Elliott Elementary. The building will be demolished in 2018.
▪ Elliott Elementary School was built in 2004 and serves grades pre-kindergarten through second.
▪ High school students living on Laurel Bay are currently zoned to attend Whale Branch Early College High School, a public high school.