Updated Friday, March 29 at 3:23 p.m.
Students will be able to return to Needham and Webb elementary schools in Franklin on Monday after the school district determined the buildings are safe.
High levels of the cancer-causing chemical TCE were found underneath the schools, prompting further testing inside the buildings during students' spring break.
“It will never be my intention to put a student or staff member back into a facility where there would be question of unsafe air quality,” says Superintendent David Clendening.
On Thursday March 21, the district decided to close the elementary buildings and have kids learn from home. Some samples taken underneath Webb Elementary’s first grade classrooms, for example, were two to three times higher than what the Indiana Department of Environmental Management considers safe.
Enviroforensics, the company that conducted the testing, says until it does further testing this weekend, it won’t know if the chemicals have gotten inside the building or what effect that may have had on students.
The district announced Friday none of the samples showed unsafe levels of of TCE or PCE, another toxic chemical, in the indoor air.
Residents suspect exposure to TCE from nearby hazardous waste sites could be causing child cancers in the area. Kari Rhineheart lost her daughter Emma Grace to a rare brain tumor four years ago.
“My kids went to Webb and so it’s kind of emotionally rough for me right now,” she says.
Results from tests in August showed the toxic chemicals TCE and PCE were at levels IDEM considers safe. The agency said more sampling at the buildings wasn’t necessary, but EnviroForensics disagreed. The company’s president Jeff Carnahan says levels of TCE tend to fluctuate with the seasons and can often be higher in the winter months.
Clendening says the district will look to the experts, including IDEM, for guidance going forward. Rhineheart says that’s concerning since IDEM didn’t want further testing.
EnviroForensics CEO Steve Henshaw says the contamination doesn’t seem to be coming from the old Amphenol industrial site, but the company plans to take soil vapor samples along sewers in the area.
As a precaution, the schools will install equipment to bring down the TCE levels underneath the buildings. The district also plans to have additional testing done before the end of the school year.
Indiana environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.