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Toxic Chemicals Found Under Santa Monica Elementary School

A wall of the McKinley Elementary School located in Santa Monica, California
Source: Jengod/Wikimedia

A plan to expand the campus of McKinley Elementary School in Santa Monica has been delayed after an inspector last year discovered toxic vapors lurking in the soil under a parking lot in the northeast of the school.

When measuring the soil during a state-required environmental test ahead of the construction, the inspection found contamination of pollutant perchloroethylene in 2,600 parts per cubic meter. This is 10 times higher than the state’s legal limit. The soil test also found benzene and trichloroethylene amounts that also exceed state health standards.

While these hazardous chemical fumes have not yet been found at harmful levels above the surface, state regulators have asserted that the contamination of the soil could threaten the well-being of anyone who comes into contact with it if a construction site is built there.

This contaminated site was home to a former dry cleaning facility, and the chemicals present were due to leftover contamination that had spread. The school had been planning to build a two-story building and revamp the design of the current campus, but now the project has been delayed.

According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) there are over 8,600 dry cleaner contamination sites spread out across California. Dry cleaners are estimated to leave contaminating chemicals at 75% of sites.

One of the prominent contaminants from the dry cleaning process is called perchloroethylene (PCE). It is commonly used for dissolving tough stains, wax, oils, and grease in the fabric of clothing without damaging it.

In 2023, California officially banned the use of PCE after it had been used in the industry for decades. However, years of improper disposal have led to numerous sites of known and unknown contamination around the state.

The state cleanup program, citing a Center for Creative Land Recycling study, estimated in 2021 that there were approximately 200,000 undiscovered contamination sites in California.

Dry cleaning businesses have historically engaged in practices of disposing of their chemicals by dumping them out the back door of the business or flushing them down the toilet, leading to soil contamination spreading over time.

“You can see where people just took buckets full and tossed them out,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “So there was basically — what would be considered now — all kinds of illegal disposal. Almost every historic dry cleaner can have some type of contamination.”

The EPA asserts that studies have shown heavy exposure to this chemical over time is linked to numerous health issues. People exposed to this chemical can develop some forms of cancer and have adverse health risks for their liver, kidneys, immune system, and for reproduction.

California regulators may call for additional testing in the groundwater and soil for homes and businesses surrounding the contamination site at the school, but no plans have yet been officially confirmed.

The school district still plans to move forward with the school expansion plans, which have been drawn up over the years. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified spokesperson Gail Pinsker said the school district will construct a new building starting in the summer and plans to install underground barriers to stop fumes from escaping to the surface.

“We have worked cooperatively with DTSC on this project and look forward to continue construction as quickly as possible so we may maintain our interest in opening this new classroom and administration building,” Pinsker said. “We appreciate the community support on bond measures that provide for school modernization projects and note that delays in construction may require additional funds beyond the budget estimate to complete this project.”

It’s unclear how long it will take to completely cleanse the school’s grounds of toxic chemical contamination.

Williams says “It could be short and sweet, like six months. Or it could be years.”


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