Law & Courts

Producers of Toxic Chemicals in Schools Owe Hundreds of Millions in Damages, Jury Says

By Mark Lieberman — December 19, 2023 3 min read
In this Jan. 4, 2019 photo, workers and other officials gather outside the Sky Valley Education Center school in Monroe, Wash., before going inside to collect samples for testing. The samples were tested for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, as well as dioxins and furans. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several families and teachers claims that officials failed to adequately respond to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the school.
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A jury in Washington state this week ordered one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to pay more than $850 million to a small group of parents and children after finding that they suffered exposure to highly toxic chemicals in a school building.

The lawsuit concerns the Sky Valley Education Center, part of the school district in Monroe, Wash. Dozens of adults and children have said they experienced debilitating illnesses after spending time there during the 2010s.

On Dec. 19, a jury in King County Superior Court ordered Bayer, which owns the company that manufactured the chemicals in question, to pay $73 million in compensatory damages and an additional $784 million in punitive damages to seven parents and children who were exposed at Sky Valley.

Several more trials pitting Sky Valley staff and families against Bayer over PCB contamination will play out in state court in the coming years.

Investigators in Sky Valley identified high levels of polycarbonate biphenyls or PCBs, a set of chemical compounds the federal government banned in the late 1970s from being manufactured in the United States. Education Week reported extensively last year on the presence of these chemicals in hundreds of school buildings nationwide.

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Caution tape and caution signs surround Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on May 9, 2021.
Caution tape and caution signs surround Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on May 9, 2021.
Luke Awtry for Education Week

PCBs were initially used as sealants to strengthen the lifespan of building materials. But prolonged exposure to PCBs, which can seep from paint and caulk into the air, can lead to a wide range of health effects, from headaches and trouble breathing to cancer and other long-term diseases.

Monsanto, which Bayer acquired in 2016, was the main manufacturer of PCBs in this country. The company has denied culpability and vowed to challenge all cases involving allegations of PCB exposure in schools.

In a statement this week, the company blasted the latest round of damages as “constitutionally excessive” and said it plans to seek to overturn the verdict. The company contends that the school district was responsible for heeding warnings in the 1990s to address PCB-laden light fixtures that may have posed a threat.

Monsanto is facing legal challenges from multiple states over PCBs in schools

Gerry Pollet, a Washington state senator and a professor of public health at the University of Washington, told Education Week he found the latest verdict “stunning.”

“The punitive figure clearly indicates that the jury believed that Monsanto and its spinoff did not act responsibly,” he said.

Pollet said he hopes the latest verdict will spur his lawmaker colleagues to support overturning a longstanding but obscure budget item that prevents the state board of health from revising its guidance on measures schools should take to protect community health.

“We know that Monroe/Sky Valley is not the sole, isolated potential exposure amongst schools in Washington,” Pollet said.

Lawsuits against Monsanto over the fallout from PCB exposure at Sky Valley have been playing out in court for years. Prior to this week’s ruling, juries have already ordered Monsanto to pay more than $1 billion to more than two dozen former school employees, parents, and students affected by PCB contamination at the school.

The Monroe school district reached a settlement with plaintiffs worth $34 million in 2022.

Monsanto is also facing legal scrutiny over PCBs in schools in Vermont, where the legislature launched a statewide search for PCBs in school buildings constructed before PCB manufacturing was outlawed.

Numerous schools have shut down portions of their buildings and shelled out thousands of dollars when PCBs have turned up.

Most notably, Burlington High School closed its doors in 2020 upon receiving PCB findings that prompted the statewide investigation. Students and teachers shifted to classrooms at a former Macy’s department store nearby, where they remain to this day.

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The exterior of Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on Sept. 19, 2022. The school has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.
The former Burlington High School building in in Burlington, Vt., stands vacant after students were moved to another site due to chemical contamination.
Luke Awtry for Education Week

A new permanent building is currently under construction. The Burlington district is suing Monsanto, arguing the company should cover the costs of construction.

The state of Vermont also sued Monsanto earlier this year, arguing the company should cover the costs of those mitigation efforts. A coalition of school districts filed a similar suit a month later, but the state’s attorney general has since asked schools to pause their lawsuit to avoid duplicating efforts.

The Sky Valley saga in Washington, meanwhile, is far from over. Close to two dozen additional trials are set to unfold in the coming years.


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