School district leaders were aware of hazardous substances in the air, soil and groundwater at Northport Middle School but downplayed the community's health concerns, leading many students to suffer severe illnesses, according to a lawsuit filed in Suffolk County Supreme Court last week.
The suit, filed Sept. 3 by the law firm of Napoli Shkolnik in Melville, contends the Northport-East Northport School District "negligently" allowed students to be exposed to toxic chemicals despite numerous complaints from teachers, staff and students regarding noxious odors, nausea, headaches, dizziness and asthma attacks.
"When you are a child, even low levels of exposure to these contaminants can do damage," said Louise Caro, an attorney for the firm. "A lot of kids have tested for levels of carbon monoxide in their system. And there have been former teachers and students that have cancers. There has been a lot of damage."
The suit seeks class-action status and financial compensation for injuries it says were caused by the toxic contaminants, as well as a medical monitoring program to test and identify individuals for conditions that may develop. The suit contends former students are at increased risk of contracting cancer, brain, kidney and lung damage and immune system and central nervous system disorders.
In a statement, the district, which began in-person classes Tuesday, said they are reviewing the suit.
"Over the course of the past few years the district has conducted extensive environmental testing and remediation, most recently conducted by P.W. Grosser Consulting Inc. in consultation with representatives from the New York State Department of Health, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as well as members of the community and the Northport-East Northport School District," the statement said.
The lone named plaintiff is Tara Mackey, whose daughter attended the middle school in 2017, the year a chemical spill was detected in a warehouse that housed chemicals under the K-wing.
At the beginning of seventh grade, Mackey's daughter, who is now 16, began experiencing intense coughing and lethargy, the suit states. She was later diagnosed with asthma, high levels of carbon monoxide in the blood and low blood platelet counts. Mackey, who moved out of state, said she petitioned the district to allow her daughter to switch schools but was denied.
"This is a lifelong condition," Mackey said. "And now, in a case like COVID, she's in a special population where we need to be extra careful because of this preexisting condition."
For years, parents of students who experienced health issues while attending classes at the Middleville Road school have urged the district to test the air and grounds for toxic chemicals. Many of those complaints date back several decades, the suit said.
The school was closed in January after P.W. Grosser detected elevated levels of benzene in septic tanks and mercury in cesspools. Cleanup of the two areas was performed last spring, but the firm said in a 7,000-page report that it had "not identified an environmental concern that renders the school unsafe to occupy."
The district has also removed two 4,000-gallon fuel tanks and pumping stations, and signed a lease to relocate a bus depot to at an off-site location, Robert Howard, the district's assistant superintendent for business, told parents earlier this year.