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Cancer-Causing Chemical Found At Oakland McClymonds High School; Campus Closed For Testing

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- A leaching, cancer-causing chemical has been found at McClymonds High School in Oakland, prompting the temporary closure of the campus, according to officials.

The Oakland Unified School district announced the temporary closure of the McClymonds to test for the chemical tricloroethylene (TCE), which was found in groundwater under the campus.

Parents got the call late Tuesday night that the high school would be closed the rest of the week and possibly into next week.

"They [students] are at home now. There was no plan for today. Just to close the school that's it," said parent and McClymonds volunteer Tolani King. "We had no idea that the school would be closing."

The district said the school's drinking water was not affected, but air testing will be conducted at the school to find out if the chemical is making its way to student areas. The campus will be closed until sometime next week and district officials were in the process of trying to find an alternate location for classes.

The TCE which is often used as an industrial solvent and in metal processing, is believed to be coming from offsite, possibly a nearby business.

District spokesman John Sasaki said during a press conference at the school that there are at least three locations in the West Oakland neighborhood near McClymonds that are dealing with high TCE levels. One of those sites, a metal-plating facility, is the closest to the school. While it is no longer active, it could still be the source of the chemical leak.

"What we found was that this TCE had gotten into the groundwater and is under our, under where we're standing right now," said Sasaki. "Because of that, we are concerned that it could be vaporizing, that is, seeping up through the ground, exiting the ground and getting into the air in particular, in our buildings. So that's why we're highly concerned about right now."

"Right now we don't have any data that says there is groundwater in the neighborhood. We have data that says we have it here, so we are starting here. We are moving quickly, said Dilan Roe with Alameda County Environmental Health.

It was not known how long the issue has been going on. Sasaki said the state had tested the location a number of years ago for contaminants and was charged with remediating any issues but it was unclear whether the state had dealt with any contamination problems.

School officials also said they were concerned about the effect of the TCE on the residents around the school.

"This is West Oakland and so there is a history of environmental injustice, of racial injustice that happens in this community. So these are places where there are leaks, there are dumps, there are things like that that are not healthy for our community," said Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Oakland Board of Education District 3 Director. "And so this is a moment and an opportunity for us to organize ourselves and to really work to make sure that future generations and these generations that are here with us that we are healthy and we are safe."

TCE is carcinogenic to humans and is used mainly as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts. The chemical is also found in adhesives and paint removers.

Exposure to TCE can cause irritation to the skin and eyes, with higher concentrations leading to more serious complications such as nausea, headaches and liver damage.

McClymonds has recently seen a handful of students and former students develop cancer, including the high-profile cases Darryl Aikens, a McClymonds football player who died of leukemia a month after graduating in 2017, as well as 2018 graduate Ramone Sanders, who died of cancer last fall. Sanders was playing football at Laney College when he broke his leg and it was discovered he had bone cancer that spread to his lungs.

Officials have not linked the cancer cases at McClymonds to the current TCE discovery.

In 2017, unsafe levels of lead were found at the school, coming from a water fountain at the football field and from the kitchen faucets in the cafeteria. The year prior, lead was also discovered in the showers in the boys' and girls' locker rooms.

A community meeting will be held Thursday evening at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church, located at 1188 12th St., for concerned parents of McClymonds High School students. The meeting started at 6 p.m.

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