Yizker bikher books commemorate Holocaust deaths – but also celebrate Jewish communities’ life

A group of schoolgirls in Czyzew, Poland, before the Holocaust. Czyżew Yizkor Book by Shimon Kanc/New York Public Library

Each year on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex in Poland, an International Day of Commemoration memorializes the victims of the Holocaust. This somber day focuses on the destruction the Nazis and their collaborators inflicted on Jewish communities throughout Europe. But there is another way to honor those 6 million murdered: remembering the ways they lived, not only the ways they died.

I am a sociologist who focuses on Holocaust memory and education. My interest is both professional and personal – my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. During research into my own family history, I became absorbed by the largest body of writing collectively created by survivors in the postwar years: “yizker bikher,” which is Yiddish for “memorial books.”

There are over 1,000 of these volumes recording the lives and deaths of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Yizker bikher were collaboratively written after World War II by survivors, many of whom sought to reclaim their lives and memories by contributing to the books, and published by mutual aid societies called “landsmanschaften” in Yiddish. Defying the Third Reich’s attempt to wipe Jewish culture off the map, these books memorialize writers’ hometowns, commemorate murdered loved ones and pass on collective memory to their victims’ descendants and their own.

‘Like life itself’

Instead of dry, matter-of-fact historical material, yizker bikher give rich descriptions of everyday life before the war: folklore, idioms, superstitions and life stories. Only toward the very end of any given volume do they turn to experiences during the Nazi era. Woven together with the text is all kinds of visual material: hand-drawn maps, sketches, photographs and documents from daily life, including meeting notes, newspaper clippings and notices of events in the “shtetl” – Yiddish for a small town. Yizker bikher might be compared with a communal scrapbook, capturing both personal lives and the community’s.

Despite writers’ desire to focus on life, the volumes are framed by a profound sense of loss. One Polish contributor simply states: “There was a Jewish community in Czyzew, and it is no longer.” This line distilled the very essence of yizker bikher: Something was there, and now it is not.

Photos of the Zilberklang family, who lived in Turobin, Poland.
Turobin Yizkor Book, edited by Me’ir Shim’on Geshuri/New York Public Library

Yet the authors brought entire communities back to life, describing both people and places with words like creative, vibrant, lively, dynamic, exciting, sublime, energetic, outstanding, vivacious, rich, effervescent and wondrous. One small shtetl in Poland was “a lively town with virtues and flaws, greatness and smallness, storm and tranquility, light and shadow like life itself.” Another is described as a “warm nest for Jewish life and culture” – an idea yizker bikher consistently emphasize, as well as the diversity of Jewish beliefs.

Authors highlight individual members of their communities, bringing the everyday to life. Writers often say that their shtetls were made up of Jews who were “simple” and “common,” such as “Chaikel the wagon driver and Yakir the shoemaker” from Sochaczew, Poland. Yizker bikher paint a picture of the shtetls as both “ordinary” and diverse. In Chorzel, Poland, for example, there were “rabbis, scholars, honorable community activists, wealthy and poor people, observant people and free-thinkers, zealots and heretics, maskilim [Jews who encouraged adopting more secular European culture] and ignoramuses, philanthropists and misers, merchants and tradesman, people interested in improving the world and Zionist pioneers.”

A map of Działoszyce, Poland, in the town’s memorial book.
Dzialoszyce Yizkor Book/New York Public Library.

“Maybe our town Działoszyce was not very different from hundreds and thousands of other Jewish communities in eastern Europe,” one Polish writer muses. “Staszów was one of the countless small Jewish towns of Poland, one of the shtetls,” another writes. While the authors spend hundreds of pages explaining what made their homes so very special, they still situated themselves within a much broader Jewish community; they saw their lives and fates as intertwined.

Tribute and protest

As a whole, yizker bikher represent an extraordinary effort against oblivion. Their authors sought to create an everlasting memory, to avoid the complete erasure that seemed a possibility after the horrors of the war. Each volume is a form of protest that stresses the urgency of survival, continuity and history. Each one is a lament – but also a concerted effort to reclaim humanity and accountability.

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Sometimes the accounts border on the rosy and nostalgic, but, time and again, the message is clear: death should be remembered, but life should be celebrated.

Jennifer Rich does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Jill Schlesinger on why why you should file your taxes as soon as possible

CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger joins “CBS Mornings” on the first day of tax season to discuss what Americans need to know when filing their taxes this year. She addresses specifics about the Child Tax Credit, stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and free resources for tax prep.

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Kazakhstan’s internet shutdown is the latest episode in an ominous trend: digital authoritarianism

While security forces in Kazakhstan cracked down on street protests, the country’s internet service went dark. AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

The Kazakhstan government shut off the internet nationwide on Jan. 5, 2022, in response to widespread civil unrest in the country. The unrest started on Jan. 2, after the government lifted the price cap on liquid natural gas, which Kazakhs use to fuel their cars. The Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen, an oil and gas hub, erupted with a protest against sharply rising fuel prices.

Immediately, there were reports of internet dark zones. As the demonstrations grew, so did the internet service disruptions. Mass internet shutdowns and mobile blocking were reported on Jan. 4, with only intermittent connectivity. By Jan. 5, approximately 95% of internet users were reportedly blocked.

The outage was decried as a human rights violation intended to suppress political dissent. The deployment of a “kill switch” to temporarily shut down the internet on a national scale renewed questions of how to curb the global threat of digital authoritarianism.

As a researcher who studies national security, cybersurveillance and civil rights, I have observed how information technology has been increasingly weaponized against civilian populations, including by cutting off the essential service of internet access. It’s part of an ominous trend of governments taking control of internet access and content to assert authoritarian control over what citizens see and hear.

A growing problem

Governments using a kill switch to block internet access on a provincial or national scale is increasing. In recent years, it has occurred as a form of social control and in response to citizen protests in multiple countries, including
Burkina Faso, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, China and Uganda. The number of internet shutdowns is on the rise, from 56 times in 2016 to over 80 times in 2017 and at least 155 blackouts documented in 29 countries in 2020.

The correlation between the growing use of the kill switch and growing threats to democracy globally is not a coincidence. The impact of this trend on freedom and self-determination is critical to understand as authoritarian governments become more sophisticated at controlling information flows, including spreading disinformation and misinformation.

Legal shutdown

Kazakhstan’s internet is largely state-run through Kazakhtelecom, formerly a state monopoly. Foreign investment and external ownership of telecommunication companies in Kazakhstan are limited. The Kazakh government has the legal power to impose internet censorship and control through both content restrictions and shutdowns; for example, in response to riots or terrorism.

Under Kazakh law, the government is empowered to “temporarily suspend the operation of networks and (or) communication facilities” when the government deems internet communication to be “damaging” to the interests of an “individual, society and the state.”

Citing terrorist threats, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev paralyzed mobile and wireless services for almost a week and invited Russian troops into the country to help with “stabilization” in the wake of the protests.

The off switch

Kazakh authorities first attempted to block access through Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) tools to block internet communications, according to a report in Forbes’ Russian edition. DPI examines the content of data packets sent through the internet. While it’s useful for monitoring networks and filtering out malware, DPI tools have also been used by countries like China and Iran to censor webpages or block them entirely.

DPI technology is not an impermeable barrier, though, and can be circumvented by encrypting traffic or using virtual private networks (VPNs), which are encrypted data connections that allow users to shield their communications. When the DPI systems were inadequate for a countrywide block, the authorities resorted to manually shutting off access, though precisely how is unclear.

One possibility is that authorities rerouted DNS traffic, which is how domain names lead people to the right websites, or worked in collaboration with internet operators to block transmissions. Another possibility is that the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan has the capacity by itself to block access.

Digital life interrupted

The effects of the internet shutdown were immediately felt by the population. Political speech and communication with the outside world were restricted, and the ability of protesters and demonstrators to assemble was constrained.

Kazakhstan’s internet shutdown hampered the ability of protesters to organize.
AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

The internet shutdown also hampered daily life for Kazakhs. The nation is highly integrated into the digital economy, from grocery purchases to school registrations, and the internet outage blocked access to essential services.

In the past, Kazakhstan’s government has used localized internet shutdowns to target isolated protests, or blocked specific websites to control information and limit the cohesiveness of protesters. In the early days of the January 2022 protest, some in Kazakhstan tried to circumvent internet restrictions by using VPNs. But VPNs were unavailable when the government disabled internet access entirely in areas.

Concentrated power, central control

The power of the Kazakhstan government to institute such a widespread shutdown may be evidence of greater control of the centralized ISP than other nations, or possibly an advance to more sophisticated forms of telecommunication control. Either way, the shutdown of entire networks for a near-total nationwide internet blackout is a continuation of authoritarian control over information and media.

Shutting off access to the internet for an entire population is a kind of digital totalitarianism. When the internet was turned off, the Kazakhstan government was able to silence speech and become the sole source of broadcast news in a turbulent time. Centralized state control over such a broad network enables greatly expanded surveillance and control of information, a powerful tool to control the populace.

As people have become savvier internet users, as Kazakhstan demonstrates, governments have also become more experienced at controlling internet access, use and content. The rise of digital authoritarianism means that internet shutdowns are likely to be on the rise as well.

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Margaret Hu received an honorarium from Microsoft Research and her research assistant is funded by Microsoft Research. She serves on the Advisory Board of the Future of Privacy Forum.

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How many bones do penguins have?

Specialized anatomy means flightless penguins are master swimmers. Christopher Michel , CC BY-SA

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.

How many bones do penguins have? – Sawyer, age 7, Media, Pennsylvania

As a zoo and wildlife veterinarian, I sometimes take care of penguins – both in the wild and in aquariums and zoos.

I’m always fascinated when I have to take X-rays of an injured bird that might have a broken bone, is sick or having difficulty moving. While penguins might look like simple, torpedo-shaped ice-waddlers, their bodies are actually quite complex.

Even though they look nothing like people or animals you may encounter every day – like dogs and cats – they have similar skeletons and joints. They even have knees and elbows, but have about half as many bones. A human skeleton is made up of 206 bones. A penguin has just 112 in its whole body.

X-ray of a penguin.
University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Author provided

All birds evolved for flight, with feathers, wings and a body that allows them to soar high in the sky. To attain liftoff, over time penguins evolved to have fewer bones in their skeletons.

How did they do that? Some of their bones actually fused together, including their ankles. Unlike humans, who have two main ankle bones, a bird’s leg bone connects directly with its feet and toes.

Birds also have fewer bones in their spines than many animals. Their lower back bones joined together into just one bone, called the synsacrum. The only other animals to have this type of backbone were the dinosaurs. For the birds, this helps them keep their bodies in a horizontal position without tiring out their back muscles while flying or swimming.

Wild Humboldt penguins.
Julie D. Sheldon, Author provided

Bird bones in general are unique. They are lightweight and hollow, which allows the animal to take flight. Because birds need a lot of oxygen for an intense activity like flying, their bones are filled with spaces for air and they also have nine air sacs that surround their lungs.

But wait, you might be thinking, “Penguins don’t fly at all.” That’s right, they evolved for a life on land and in the water, and they have a unique skeleton compared to many other birds.

The first penguins, which appeared shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago, were flightless. Ten million years later, they had become great swimmers. Present-day species spend up to 75% of their time in the ocean. That meant they had to grow heavier so they could dive underwater to hunt for food.

Penguins developed dense, hefty bones that don’t have the air pockets that flying birds have. That helped make up for the air sacs around their lungs. Their bulky bones keep them from floating up to the water’s surface, like a scuba diver who straps on a weight belt to submerge.

Penguins are uniquely adapted to swim underwater.

Penguins’ wings are also different because these birds need to swim, not soar into the sky. Penguins’ wings morphed into what look like short, flat, stiff fins that don’t bend like flying birds’ do. They also have fewer bones than other birds.

Their wings act like paddles, helping them race through the water at high speeds. Gentoo penguins can swim up to 22 mph. That’s much faster than Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, who broke a world record for humans at 5.5 mph.

The combination of hefty bones and powerful finlike wings allows penguins to descend quickly and dive incredibly deep to hunt for fish, krill and other food. An emperor penguin can go down to at least 1,500 feet, which is about the length of five football fields.

Thanks to their fewer number of dense bones and other cool adaptations, penguins are champions of open water.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.

Julie Sheldon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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More women in a STEM field leads people to label it as a ‘soft science,’ according to new research

How seriously people take particular scientific disciplines partly depends on how many women enter them. skynesher/E+ via Getty Images

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

One factor that influences the use of the labels “soft science” or “hard science” is gender bias, according to recent research my colleagues and I conducted.

Women’s participation varies across STEM disciplines. While women have nearly reached gender parity in biomedical sciences, they still make up only about 18% of students receiving undergraduate degrees in computer science, for instance.

In a series of experiments, we varied the information study participants read about women’s representation in fields like chemistry, sociology and biomedical sciences. We then asked them to categorize these fields as either a “soft science” or a “hard science.”

Across studies, participants were consistently more likely to describe a discipline as a “soft science” when they’d been led to believe that proportionally more women worked in the field. Moreover, the “soft science” label led people to devalue these fields – describing them as less rigorous, less trustworthy and less deserving of federal research funding.

Why it matters

Over the past decade, a growing movement has encouraged girls and women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. This effort is sometimes described as a way to reduce the wage gap.

By encouraging women to enter high-paying fields like science, technology and engineering, advocates hope that women on average will increase their earning power relative to men. Others have hoped that, as women demonstrate they can be successful in STEM, sexist stereotypes about women’s ability and interest in STEM will erode.

Our research suggests this may not be the case. Stereotypes about women and STEM persist, even in the face of evidence that women can and do productively participate in STEM fields. These stereotypes can lead people to simply devalue the fields in which women participate. In this way, even science and math can end up in the “pink collar” category of heavily female fields that are often devalued and underpaid.

What does a ‘scientist’ look like in your mind’s eye?
ER Productions Limited/DigitalVision via Getty Images

What other research is being done

Other research has found that explicit “science equals men” stereotypes were weaker among people who majored in science disciplines with high participation by women, like biological sciences, compared to those who majored in fields with few women, like engineering. This finding suggests that exposure to women in your own field can shift the gender stereotypes you hold.

But our studies more closely align with other research suggesting that, rather than reducing gender stereotyping, women’s increased participation results in the devaluation of more heavily female fields.

When women make up more than 25% of graduate students in a discipline, men – and to a lesser extent women – become less interested in pursuing that discipline, and salaries tend to go down. Other studies have found that the same job is seen as deserving a lower salary when positioned in a “female field” than when it is listed in a “male field.” Together, this suggests that the presence of women, and not characteristics of the job or field, is what leads to devaluation and lower pay.

What still isn’t known

Participants who worked or planned to work in science were just as likely as the rest of the population to use gender as a cue to categorize soft vs. hard sciences. But in scientists, we found no connection between that tendency and their beliefs about women’s ability in science and math. That is, scientists’ levels of sexism, as measured by self-report, were unrelated to their inclination to call fields with many women “soft sciences.”

We don’t know how scientists and non-scientists ended up making the same connection between gender and soft science labels. It’s possible that people who work in science are just more aware of norms against expressing such gender stereotypes – meaning their self-reports are less likely to reflect their true beliefs and actually more closely match those of non-scientists.

But it’s also possible that something else is driving their use of the “soft science” label. For example, to our surprise, women who worked in science were more likely compared to men in science to label fields with many women as “soft sciences.” This could reflect the tendency for some women who experience sexism in their fields to distance themselves from other women as a way to protect themselves from being targets of sexism.

What’s next

Science advocates must grapple with the fact that women’s work in scientific fields can result in fields being devalued. For society to benefit fully from the broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, advocates may need to address gender stereotypes more directly.

Gender stereotypes about STEM could also affect which fields talented students choose to pursue. The label of “soft science” might be a turnoff for high-achieving students who want to prove their strengths – or, conversely, students who are insecure about their abilities might avoid a major described as a “hard science.”

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Alysson Light does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Schools join the fight against human trafficking

Protests around the world aim to end human trafficking. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Education leaders across the U.S. are trying to figure out how to effectively teach students about the risks and warning signs of human trafficking, which includes being forced into domestic servitude, commercial labor or sex work.

According to 2019 data gathered by the Polaris Project – a nonprofit that fights human trafficking, including sex trafficking – 24% of survivors reported that they were first trafficked before they turned 18.

In 2017, California became the first state to require human trafficking education for students and teachers. Tennessee, Florida and Virginia also now require school staff to receive formal training intended to stop human trafficking.

As cases of human trafficking continue to make headlines, similar prevention and education efforts are being made in schools across the country. Parents and community members in other states may also find similar efforts coming to their communities. As a scholar who studies business ethics – and as executive director of the Center for Ethics and Human Rights at Colorado State University – I recommend school leaders keep five key goals in mind when creating anti-trafficking educational programs.

1. Create a safe haven

Childhood researchers suggest that children need a safe haven where they can go when confronted with fear and threats. They also need a secure base, a place where they feel secure to explore the world around them.

Ideally, children’s homes would serve these purposes. But schools can also provide safe havens and secure bases. Children who feel more secure are less vulnerable to predatory people, who often fake affection and provide a false sense of love as a tactic to lure kids into the world of human trafficking.

2. Pay attention to triggers

When being taught about human trafficking, it’s possible that children’s memories of past trauma might be triggered. Educators who are aware of this possibility are more likely to be better at protecting kids from being triggered, and better able to respond properly if it happens.

Many children have been exposed to trauma, such as neglect or abandonment; physical, sexual or psychological abuse; loss of a loved one; or refugee or war experiences. When these memories are triggered, children feel distressed and unsafe.

Triggers may include words, tone of voice, facial expressions, smells, feelings or postures that are embedded in a child’s mind. And some can cause unexpected reactions in seemingly regular situations. For instance, a child whose abusive parent used to eat oranges may be triggered by the smell of an orange, and this memory may became linked with the abusive experience in the child’s mind. Or a common nickname might have been used by an abuser and can be a trigger.

Often, these memories are not conscious ones, so the child may not understand why they feel distressed or overwhelmed, and yet they respond to the trigger as if they are facing a real threat.

3. Be inclusive

When teachers show compassion, warmth and kindness to their students, students are more likely to develop a strong sense of belonging in the classroom space.

Without that sense of belonging, students might come to see themselves as unworthy of attention and love, which hurts their self-esteem and makes them more vulnerable to the influence of predators.

4. Dispel misconceptions and stereotypes

Young white women are often depicted in media as representative of trafficking victims, although women and girls of color experience high rates of trafficking.

Also, women of color who are forced to engage in sexual acts or labor are often stereotyped as deviants and treated with suspicion by officials and law enforcement.

And while boys are less commonly trafficking victims, they are still at risk of being trafficked. In addition, many human trafficking reports do not provide data on nonbinary or gender-nonconforming people.

Trafficking education materials work best when they accurately discuss who the perpetrators are. Effective anti-trafficking education teaches kids that traffickers are not just strangers or people belonging to another race or ethnicity. Traffickers are often friendly, charismatic, well-dressed and seemingly wealthy, and they may appear to be kind and warm. They may also be close family members and caregivers who exploit children in their care.

5. Use appropriate touch and tone

Teachers often use touch and tone of voice to build connections with children. But many children who have experienced trauma are sensitive to touch and avoid it. Teachers who learn how to use touch in reassuring and affirming ways – such as an encouraging pat on the back, an occasional handshake, high-five or fist bump – can help build a sense of safety and security in the classroom, building trust with students and making them less likely to fall prey to traffickers.

Similarly, using consistent tones of voice that are calm, reassuring and firm can help students’ development, engagement, learning and growth.

Schools can play an important role in helping students learn about and protect themselves from human trafficking. With these five concepts in mind, school leaders will be better prepared to help keep kids safe.

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Lumina Albert does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Eye Opener: As fear mounts of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, some Americans are being evacuated

Some Americans are being evacuated from Ukraine amid fears over a potential Russian invasion. Also, U.S. schools face big testing challenges as COVID-19 hits hardest in states with low vaccination rates. All that and all that matters in today’s Eye Opener.

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Some schools turn to COVID testing to keep kids in the classroom amid spike in infections

Amid a spike in coronavirus cases, schools across the U.S. are turning to COVID testing to try to keep kids in the classroom. While the majority of districts have stayed open, nearly 4,500 schools did not offer in-person learning on one or more days last week due to a rise in infections. Meg Oliver reports from Paterson, New Jersey.

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House panel investigating January 6 spoke with Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr

Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, said on “Face the Nation” Sunday that the panel has spoken with former Attorney General William Barr. This comes as the committee investigates a reported plan to use the military to seize voting machines in the 2020 election. CBS News congressional correspondent Nikole Killion reports from Capitol Hill.

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How mRNA and DNA vaccines could soon treat cancers, HIV, autoimmune disorders and genetic diseases

Nucleic acid vaccines use mRNA to give cells instructions on how to produce a desired protein. Libre de Droit/iStock via Getty Images

The two most successful coronavirus vaccines developed in the U.S. – the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – are both mRNA vaccines. The idea of using genetic material to produce an immune response has opened up a world of research and potential medical uses far out of reach of traditional vaccines. Deborah Fuller is a microbiologist at the University of Washington who has been studying genetic vaccines for more than 20 years. We spoke to her about the future of mRNA vaccines for The Conversation Weekly podcast.

Below are excerpts from that conversation which have been edited for length and clarity.

How long have gene-based vaccines been in development?

This type of vaccine has been in the works for about 30 years. Nucleic acid vaccines are based on the idea that DNA makes RNA and then RNA makes proteins. For any given protein, once we know the genetic sequence or code, we can design an mRNA or DNA molecule that prompts a person’s cells to start making it.

When we first thought about this idea of putting a genetic code into somebody’s cells, we were studying both DNA and RNA. The mRNA vaccines did not work very well at first. They were unstable and they caused pretty strong immune responses that were not necessarily desirable. For a very long time DNA vaccines took the front seat, and the very first clinical trials were with a DNA vaccine.

But about seven or eight years ago, mRNA vaccines started to take the lead. Researchers solved a lot of the problems – notably the instability – and discovered new technologies to deliver mRNA into cells and ways of modifying the coding sequence to make the vaccines a lot more safe to use in humans.

Once those problems were solved, the technology was really poised to become a revolutionary tool for medicine. This was just when COVID-19 hit.

DNA and mRNA vaccines are much better at producing T cells than are normal vaccines.
NIAID/NIH via Flickr

What makes nucleic acid vaccines different from traditional vaccines?

Most vaccines induce antibody responses. Antibodies are the primary immune mechanism that blocks infections. As we began to study nucleic acid vaccines, we discovered that because these vaccines are expressed within our cells, they were also very effective at inducing a T cell response. This discovery really prompted additional thinking about how researchers could use nucleic acid vaccines not just for infectious diseases, but also for immunotherapy to treat cancers and chronic infectious diseases – like HIV, hepatitis B and herpes – as well as autoimmune disorders and even for gene therapy.

How can a vaccine treat cancers or chronic infectious diseases?

T cell responses are very important for identifying cells infected with chronic diseases and aberrant cancer cells. They also play a big role in eliminating these cells from the body.

When a cell becomes cancerous, it starts producing neoantigens. In normal cases, the immune system detects these neoantigens, recognizes that something’s wrong with the cell and eliminates it. The reason some people get tumors is that their immune system isn’t quite capable of eliminating the tumor cells, so the cells propagate.

With an mRNA or DNA vaccine, the goal is to make your body better able to recognize the very specific neoantigens the cancer cell has produced. If your immune system can recognize and see those better, it will attack the cancer cells and eliminate them from the body.

This same strategy can be applied to the elimination of chronic infections like HIV, hepatitis B and herpes. These viruses infect the human body and stay in the body forever unless the immune system eliminates them. Similar to the way nucleic acid vaccines can train the immune system to eliminate cancer cells, they can be used to train our immune cells to recognize and eliminate chronically infected cells.

There are dozens of ongoing trials testing the efficacy of mRNA or DNA vaccines to treat cancers or chronic diseases.
Stefan Cristian Cioata/Moment via Getty Images

What is the status of these vaccines?

Some of the very first clinical trials of nucleic acid vaccines happened in the 1990s and were for cancer, particularly for melanoma.

Today, there are a number of ongoing mRNA clinical trials for the treatment of melanoma, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, glioblastoma and others, and there have been some promising outcomes. Moderna recently announced promising results with its phase 1 trial using mRNA to treat solid tumors and lymphoma

There are also a lot of ongoing trials looking at cancer DNA vaccines, because DNA vaccines are particularly effective in inducing T cell responses. A company called Inovio recently demonstrated a significant impact on cervical cancer caused by human papilloma virus in women using a DNA vaccine.

Can nucleic acid vaccines treat autoimmune disorders?

Autoimmune disorders occur when a person’s immune cells are actually attacking a part of the person’s own body. An example of this is multiple sclerosis. If you have multiple sclerosis, your own immune cells are attacking myelin, a protein that coats the nerve cells in your muscles.

The way to eliminate an autoimmune disorder is to modulate your immune cells to prevent them from attacking your own proteins. In contrast to vaccines, whose goal is to stimulate the immune system to better recognize something, treatment for autoimmune diseases seeks to dampen the immune system so that it stops attacking something it shouldn’t. Recently, researchers created an mRNA vaccine encoding a myelin protein with slightly tweaked genetic instructions to prevent it from stimulating immune responses. Instead of activating normal T cells that increase immune responses, the vaccine caused the body to produce T regulatory cells that specifically suppressed only the T cells that were attacking myelin.

Many diseases result when people have mutations or are missing certain genes, and nucleic acid vaccines could act as temporary replacements for the missing genes.
ttsz/iStock via Getty Images

Any other applications of the new vaccine technology?

The last application is actually one of the very first things that researchers thought about using DNA and mRNA vaccines for: gene therapy. Some people are born missing certain genes. The goal with gene therapy is to supply cells with the missing instructions they need to produce an important protein.

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A great example of this is cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease caused by mutations in a single gene. Using DNA or an mRNA vaccine, researchers are investigating the feasibility of essentially replacing the missing gene and allowing someone’s body to transiently produce the missing protein. Once the protein is present, the symptoms could disappear, at least temporarily. The mRNA would not persist very long in the human body, nor would it integrate into people’s genomes or change the genome in any way. So additional doses would be needed as the effect wore off.

Research has shown that this concept is feasible, but it still needs some work.

Deborah Fuller is co-founder of Orlance, Inc, a biotechnology company developing a needle free technology to deliver RNA and DNA vaccines. She also serves as a scientific advisor for HDT Bio, a biotechnology company developing RNA vaccines for COVID19 and other infectious diseases; scientific advisor for Abacus, Inc., a biotechnology company developing cancer vaccines and scientific advisor for SQZ Biotech, a biotechnology company developing cell-based therapies for cancer and infectious diseases. She is also serving as a vaccine expert for Wilmerhale on legal matters. She receives funding supporting basic and translational research in RNA and DNA vaccines from the National Institutes of Health.

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What’s a 990 form? A charity accounting expert explains

Most nonprofits must file this paperwork with the IRS every year. Dean R Specker/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Most tax-exempt nonprofits must file a 990 form with the Internal Revenue Service every year, typically in mid-May.

The 990 is purely informational. Nonprofits commit to serve an “approved purpose” – such as fighting bigotry, protecting animal welfare or sheltering the homeless – and meeting other eligibility rules. In exchange, they generally don’t pay taxes on the donations they receive or other sources of income. But they must file either this 12-page form or a shorter version of it, in which they report information about their finances, leadership and activities.

The IRS needs this information to verify that nonprofits should keep their tax-exempt status. It reviews 990s and selects some to audit, just as it does for individuals and businesses.

The 990’s formal title is “Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax.” Since 1941, these forms have given the IRS an overview of nonprofit finances, including revenue, expenses, assets and liabilities. The form sums up the group’s mission, indicates who sits on its board of directors and states highest-paid employees’ pay.

The most recent version discloses details regarding the group’s activities through answers to more than 80 questions. While charitable nonprofits file most 990s, other entities, such as nonexempt charitable trusts, private foundations and some political organizations, also must file them.

Why 990s matter

Because the government makes this data publicly available, organizations that assess the quality of a nonprofit’s operations and management, such as Charity Navigator, can analyze it. This helps the public assess whether the organization is trustworthy.

And prospective donors and others may easily access 990 forms, with help from “finder” features that groups like ProPublica and Candid maintain.

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When nonprofits fail to file 990s for three years in a row, the IRS automatically revokes their tax-exempt status. Those organizations may apply to have it reinstated by sending in a new application and paying a fee.

This informational form can help the public learn about a nonprofit’s operations.
Maskot/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Shorter forms or none at all

There are at least 1.5 million U.S. tax-exempt nonprofits. Most need to file a 990 return, which they must do electronically.

Nonprofits with incomes below $200,000 and assets of less than $500,000 may file a shorter version of the form called the 990-EZ. The 990-EZ, which is four pages long, still requires the reporting of income and expenses. Because it asks fewer questions, completing the 990-EZ requires less disclosure.

Nonprofits with incomes of $50,000 or less may file even simpler paperwork: the 990-N form. Often called an e-postcard, the 990-N requires the reporting of minimal information. It simply verifies that the nonprofit still exists and can continue to be tax-exempt.

Private foundations and similar groups file the 990 PF, on which they report any tax due on investment income. There’s also a 990-T, for nonprofits with taxable business income.

One large group of tax-exempt nonprofits isn’t required to file 990s: churches and other faith-based organizations engaged in worship.

Read other short accessible explanations of newsworthy subjects written by academics in their areas of expertise for The Conversation U.S. here.

Sarah Webber does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Urgent tri-state infrastructure project gets green light after long delay

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, about 200,000 rode the train through the tunnel under the Hudson river between New York and New Jersey every day. The tunnel, built in 1910, is over 111 years old–and due to lingering damage from Superstorm Sandy, is getting more unstable each day. The project had been in a holding pattern, but now, with the passing of Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, the repairs can finally begin. Hari Sreenivasan reports from New Jersey.

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How the U.S. could address confusing, shifting COVID-19 health directives

Two years since the first lockdown in China, there have been great strides to combat COVID-19, but confusion and questions remain. From vaccinations to testing, to masking and how many days to isolate–there hasn’t always been clarity. More collaboration between the CDC and the FDA would help, says Joshua Sharfstein, professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

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Full video: “Listening to America” focus group on COVID and the economy

During the course of the pandemic, “Face the Nation” has been listening to Americans, through Zoom, to get their thoughts on COVID, the economy and how the government is handling it all. On Friday, we checked back in with six of them. This is the full version of a segment that aired Sunday, January 23, 2022.

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“Sunday Morning” Full Episode 1/23

Hosted by Jane Pauley. In our cover story, Mark Whitaker looks into suggestions to limit the wealth of the super-rich. Plus: Mo Rocca talks with Christine Baranski, star of “The Good Fight” and “The Gilded Age”; Ben Mankiewicz sits down with 92-year-old character actor James Hong; Serena Altschul explores the history of Architectural Digest magazine; David Pogue visits a Smithsonian exhibition on the future; David Martin examines Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine; and Luke Burbank joins a hardy band of swimmers in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay.

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Tonga eruption was so intense, it caused the atmosphere to ring like a bell

The volcano shortly before its eruption. Maxar via Getty Images

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption reached an explosive crescendo on Jan. 15, 2022. Its rapid release of energy powered an ocean tsunami that caused damage as far away as the U.S. West Coast, but it also generated pressure waves in the atmosphere that quickly spread around the world.

The atmospheric wave pattern close to the eruption was quite complicated, but thousands of miles away it appeared as an isolated wave front traveling horizontally at over 650 miles an hour as it spread outward.

NASA’s James Garvin, chief scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, told NPR the space agency estimated the blast was around 10 megatons of TNT equivalent, about 500 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World Word II. From satellites watching with infrared sensors above, the wave looked like a ripple produced by dropping a stone in a pond.

Satellite infrared observations captured the pulse propagating around the world.
Mathew Barlow/University of Massachusetts Lowell

The pulse registered as perturbations in the atmospheric pressure lasting several minutes as it moved over North America, India, Europe and many other places around the globe. Online, people followed the progress of the pulse in real time as observers posted their barometric observations to social media. The wave propagated around the whole world and back in about 35 hours.

I am a meteorologist who has studied the oscillations of the global atmosphere for almost four decades. The expansion of the wave front from the Tonga eruption was a particularly spectacular example of the phenomenon of global propagation of atmospheric waves, which has been seen after other historic explosive events, including nuclear tests.

This eruption was so powerful it caused the atmosphere to ring like a bell, though at a frequency too low to hear. It’s a phenomenon first theorized over 200 years ago.

Krakatoa, 1883

The first such pressure wave that attracted scientific attention was produced by the great eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883.

The Krakatoa wave pulse was detected in barometric observations at locations throughout the world. Communication was slower in those days, of course, but within a few years, scientists had combined the various individual observations and were able to plot on a world map the propagation of the pressure front in the hours and days after the eruption.

The wave front traveled outward from Krakatoa and was observed making at least three complete trips around the globe. The Royal Society of London published a series of maps illustrating the wave front’s propagation in a famous 1888 report on the eruption.

Maps from an 1888 report, shown here as an animated loop, reveal the position every two hours of the pressure wave from the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.
Kevin Hamilton, based on Royal Society of London images, CC BY-ND

The waves seen after Krakatoa or the recent Tonga eruption are very low-frequency sound waves. The propagation occurs as local pressure changes produce a force on the adjacent air, which then accelerates, causing an expansion or compression with accompanying pressure changes, which in turn forces air farther along the wave’s path.

In our normal experience with higher-frequency sound waves, we expect sound to travel in straight lines, say, from an exploding firework rocket directly to the ear of onlooker on the ground. But these global pressure pulses have the peculiarity of propagating only horizontally, and so bending as they follow the curvature of the Earth.

A theory of waves that hug the Earth

Over 200 years ago, the great French mathematician, physicist and astronomer Pierre-Simon de Laplace predicted such behavior.

Pierre-Simon de Laplace, 1749-1827.

Laplace based his theory on the physical equations governing atmospheric motions on a global scale. He predicted that there should be a class of motions in the atmosphere that propagate rapidly but hug the surface of the Earth. Laplace showed that the forces of gravity and atmospheric buoyancy favor horizontal air motions relative to vertical air motions, and one effect is to allow some atmospheric waves to follow the curvature of the Earth.

For most of the 19th century, this seemed a somewhat abstract idea. But the pressure data after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa showed in a dramatic way that Laplace was correct and that these Earth-hugging motions can be excited and will propagate over enormous distances.

Understanding of this behavior is used today to detect faraway nuclear explosions. But the full implications of Laplace’s theory for the background vibration of the global atmosphere have only recently been confirmed.

Ringing like a bell

An eruption that sets the atmosphere ringing like a bell is one manifestation of the phenomenon that Laplace theorized. The same phenomenon is also present as global vibrations of the atmosphere.

These global oscillations, analogous to the sloshing of water back and forth in a bathtub, have only recently been conclusively detected.

The waves can connect the atmosphere rapidly over the whole globe, rather like waves propagating through a musical instrument, such as a violin string, drum skin or metal bell. The atmosphere can and does “ring” at a set of distinct frequencies.

Images from a weather satellite captured the volcanic eruption on Jan. 15, 2022.
Japan Meteorology Agency via AP

In 2020, my Kyoto University colleague Takatoshi Sakazaki and I were able to use modern observations to confirm implications of Laplace’s theory for the globally coherent vibrations of the atmosphere. Analyzing a newly released dataset of atmospheric pressure every hour for 38 years at sites worldwide, we were able to spot the global patterns and frequencies that Laplace and others who followed him had theorized.

These global atmospheric oscillations are much too low-frequency to hear, but they are excited continuously by all the other motions in the atmosphere, providing a very gentle but persistent “background music” to the more dramatic weather fluctuations in our atmosphere.

Laplace’s work was a first step on the road to our modern computer forecasting of the weather.

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Kevin Hamilton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Toxic PCBs Festered at This Public School for Eight Years as Students and Teachers Grew Sicker


This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Seattle Times. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

MONROE, Wash. — For Michelle Leahy, it started with headaches, inflamed rashes on her arms and legs, and blisters in her mouth.

Some students and staff at Sky Valley Education Center, an alternative public school in Monroe, also had strange symptoms: cognitive problems, skin cysts, girls as young as 6 suddenly hitting puberty.

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Leahy, like others, eventually became too sick to return to campus. She developed uterine cancer as her other symptoms escalated.

“Who would ever think that the job that you love was making you sick?” Leahy, 62, said.

Michelle Leahy

(Rajah Bose/Special to The Seattle Times)

She didn’t know it then, about seven years ago, but her classroom contained some of the highest levels of toxic chemicals found at Sky Valley. Inspections and environmental testing across campus found an amalgam of harmful environmental conditions, including very high levels of carbon dioxide, poor air ventilation and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a banned, synthetic chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to some cancers and other illnesses.

School administrators, however, knew.

Health inspectors flagged problems on campus as early as 2014, a year before Leahy’s health began to fail. But even as parents complained, again and again, about suspected environmental hazards there, school officials offered reassurances that cleanup efforts at Sky Valley were successful.

Records obtained by The Seattle Times in a public disclosure request show that Monroe School District officials responded slowly, at times asserting, even in official reports to the EPA, they had cleared the campus of toxic material, though in fact it still lingered in buildings.

To this day, federal officials still are pressing Monroe schools to clear the campus of PCB-laden material and address other environmental hazards. And to this day, Sky Valley remains open.

Ultimately more than 200 teachers, parents and students would claim that exposure at Sky Valley made them severely sick with illnesses that have been linked to PCB exposure. The saga at Sky Valley unfolded in a remarkable lawsuit against the manufacturers of PCBs, producing some of the largest-ever jury awards for individuals exposed to the chemical.

The litigation revealed a startling gap in Washington state law — readily acknowledged by government officials in court documents — that allows environmental hazards to fester in schools and may have implications for older schools across the state.

State law requires health districts to inspect schools for environmental hazards and propose actions — but they are not required to enforce their findings. Although school districts are broadly required to maintain a healthy environment, they don’t have to act on all health recommendations.

And if inspections find certain toxic chemicals, including PCBs, state law doesn’t require administrators to notify parents, students or staff of the results.

As a result of those gaps, the Monroe School District and the health agency for the county, the Snohomish Health District, haven’t faced any penalties from regulators relating to Sky Valley.

It’s unclear if Sky Valley is an outlier or a bellwether among the roughly 9,000 school buildings in Washington because the state has not done a comprehensive survey of the environmental health of schools.

But seven years ago, state environment officials said they were “especially concerned” about schools’ potential to expose people to PCBs, which were banned by the EPA in 1979 but still remain in some structures built before then.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, said Washington’s state law is exceptionally weak when it comes to environmental health in schools, which he learned last year when he helped pass a law requiring testing for lead in school drinking water.

School districts have resisted mandatory testing and cleanup laws because they do not want to be held financially responsible for expensive remediation when it is demanded, Pollet said.

“If you have a contaminated gas station, we clean it up for the health of the community,” he said. “But if you have the same contamination inside the school building, we act like it’s exempt from our standards of toxic exposure and cleanup. And that is a really sad and serious failing of state policy.”

The Monroe School District did not respond to questions about conditions at Sky Valley and declined to make officials available for interviews, including its superintendent. School board members did not respond to requests for comment. Instead, the district directed The Seattle Times to a lawyer and a 456-page consultant’s report that defends the district’s handling of Sky Valley.

The report defends the district’s communication with parents and teachers about the unfolding problem and says officials addressed PCBs appropriately. It notes that, although Washington mandates that schools maintain safe conditions, “none of these requirements are specific to PCBs in building materials.”

Leahy eventually transferred out of Sky Valley to another school, as did several other teachers, before retiring to Spokane, where she now lives.

Leahy looks back at an old yearbook from Sky Valley Education Center. After falling ill, she eventually left the school, as did several other teachers.

(Rajah Bose/Special to The Seattle Times)

One memory is particularly haunting for her: setting up an inflatable planetarium once a week to teach immersive astronomy lessons to some of the brightest STEM students, about 20 at a time.

But with little air circulation inside the chamber, Leahy now believes her immersive lessons unwittingly intensified children’s exposure to harmful chemicals in the air and carpet. Many of her students became ill around this time.

“I had no idea,” she said, dissolving into tears. “I was poisoning my students.”

“And It Is Safe”

Monroe, a small city nestled near the Cascade foothills northeast of Seattle, is home to one of the largest public parental co-op programs in the state: Sky Valley Education Center. Launched in 1998, it offers K-12 students individual learning plans that include hands-on environmental science courses and self-directed Montessori instruction.

The popular, 700-student program once occupied a vacant warehouse. In 2011, it moved to an aging campus when the district consolidated middle schools, giving the program bigger classrooms, a gymnasium and outdoor space.

The toxicants that would creep into classrooms and hallways predated Sky Valley’s move. The lights and caulking were infused with PCBs, an effective preservative popular in school construction before research revealed its toxicity in the 1970s.

Within three years of moving, decades-old fluorescent lights at Sky Valley started to fail, district records show. The fixtures smoked, caught fire and dripped sticky yellow oil.

Sky Valley Education Center had been holding classes in a former warehouse, where these yearbook photos were shot, before moving to the building that exposed students, teachers and parents to toxic chemicals.

(Rajah Bose/Special to The Seattle Times)

Teachers began raising concerns. One teacher pieced together staff and student symptoms and raised suspicions about PCBs. In April 2014, Sky Valley Principal Karen Rosencrans emailed staff the first of many reassurances that the district had the problem under control.

“Our building is quirky and old and sometimes a challenge. But it is ours. And it is safe,” Rosencrans wrote, assuring parents that the district would remove and replace faulty lights. Rosencrans directed questions to the school district, which declined to comment on the contamination.

Two weeks later, a school district consultant carried out the first of at least half a dozen inspections conducted over the next seven years. It found elevated concentrations of PCBs in a science prep area near classrooms.

While the EPA does not set standards for indoor PCB concentrations, it offers “recommended” thresholds in schools that increase by age, aimed at reducing potential for harm. “They should not be interpreted nor applied as ‘bright line’ or ‘not-to-exceed’ criteria, but may be used to guide thoughtful evaluation of indoor air quality in schools,” the agency says of its recommended limits. In Sky Valley, the PCB levels exceeded the threshold for infants and toddlers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked PCB exposure to impaired memory and learning ability, skin conditions, liver problems and other illnesses. Animal studies connect the chemical to thyroid and hormone problems, neurological damage and some cancers, depending on the number, length and dose of the exposures.

It’s difficult to tell exactly what levels of PCB exposures pose immediate harms, but growing research on the toxicity of the chemical has shown stronger ties to illnesses, said Keri Hornbuckle, director of the University of Iowa’s Superfund Research Program, an academic leader in studying airborne PCBs. “It only gets worse year after year.”

Some states enforce limits on indoor PCB concentrations, including Vermont and Massachusetts. Washington does not.

Later that year, the school district’s consultant, Seattle-based EHSI, returned to Sky Valley, this time looking for other hazards. It said complaints of headaches, sinus issues and sneezing among teachers and students were likely due to ventilation problems, which led to a buildup of pollutants. The inspection wasn’t focused on PCBs, but it found high carbon dioxide levels and some mold on campus, and the consultant recommended improving ventilation and removing carpets that can absorb toxic substances.

Over the course of a year, the school district removed 67 light fixtures suspected to contain PCBs, cleaned more than 100 other lights and removed some carpets from classrooms, district reports said. It later estimated it spent at least $1.6 million cleaning up Sky Valley, including money for testing, new lights and custodial services.

Rosencrans and Monroe schools’ operations director, John Mannix, sent a letter to teachers and parents in late 2015 assuring them that all areas were cleaned and treated according to EPA guidelines. Mannix, who now works at Mukilteo schools, did not respond to an interview request.

But that wasn’t the opinion of the Snohomish Health District, which raised red flags just two weeks later.

“Our concern is that PCB ballasts might have been missed when this issue was addressed last year,” wrote Snohomish health inspector Amanda Zych, according to records obtained by the Times. Among her observations: One classroom carpet suspected to have absorbed PCB oil was duct-taped down instead of taken out.

The district removed the duct-taped carpet and commissioned more air samples. This time the PCB concentrations were higher than in earlier tests, district records show.

Parents flooded the Snohomish Health District with dozens of complaints, records show. Kids reported headaches, breathing problems and thyroid and hormonal issues. Parents, students and teachers say they developed cysts and mouth sores; their skin cracked, peeled and changed pigment.

As the health crisis at Sky Valley was playing out, the EPA’s regional office found “several cities in Washington that we think would be a good place to look for PCBs in school lighting ballasts,” including Monroe, an official wrote in an email relating to a planned program to proactively examine schools for PCBs.

It’s likely the chemical is seeping into old campuses across the country without public knowledge, Hornbuckle said. “It’s not whether [PCBs] are there or whether they are toxic. We know they’re there and we know they’re harmful. The question is what do we do to address it.”

But without a requirement to test for PCBs in schools — and no requirement to disclose results if tests are performed — there’s no way to know how many campuses might have harmful PCBs in the air.

“The Smoking Gun”

By 2016, two years into the unfolding crisis at Sky Valley, administrators were giving regular updates to families reassuring them that the campus was safe.

Behind the scenes, emails show apparent dysfunction among school, health and environmental officials about how to tackle the problem. The Snohomish Health District looped in the state health and ecology departments, eventually triggering direct EPA involvement.

That February, an official from the state health department told other agencies that she didn’t think further air sampling at Sky Valley was necessary, records show. She suggested “a thorough wipe down of hard surfaces with warm soapy water and a thorough vacuum.”

A state toxicologist forwarded the email to an EPA official in charge of PCB remediation in the Pacific Northwest, writing, “Have you been looped into this? I’m not sure soapy water is the answer.”

It is not, according to EPA rules, which outline specific solvents needed to clean PCBs. The agency also recommends, but doesn’t require, removing all PCB-containing fixtures.

It’s unclear what it would cost to remove contaminated light fixtures from Washington’s public schools because the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem, a 2015 state Department of Ecology report says. In New York City, officials estimated a decade ago that it would cost about $708 million to clear PCB-laden lights from 772 schools built before 1979.

After the interagency email exchange, the EPA’s regional office stepped in to direct Sky Valley’s cleanup effort. “We’re anxious to understand the state of PCBs in the school,” Michelle Mullin, who oversees the EPA’s regional PCB program, wrote in late February 2016.

The EPA soon inspected the school, finding PCBs in several light fixtures, according to federal environmental records.

On April 21, 2016, the EPA talked with Monroe School District officials about its findings, recommending additional cleanup steps, records show.

Just hours later, as day faded into evening, nearly 100 parents filed into rows of folding chairs that lined the gymnasium at Frank Wagner Elementary School, a newer campus down the street from Sky Valley.

Speaking to the crowd, school officials emphasized that PCB levels weren’t high enough to exceed the EPA’s guidelines, according to The Monroe Monitor. Rosencrans, the Sky Valley principal, noted that some teachers had gotten so sick that they couldn’t return to campus, but others were in good health.

Deep cleaning was underway to address the campus’s environmental problems, school officials told the parents.

But parents — who confronted officials for the next three and a half hours — feared that regulatory standards weren’t enough to keep children safe.

“I just want to assert the fact that there might not be the science behind combining slightly elevated PCB levels, slightly elevated asbestos levels, slightly elevated radon levels, but when you combine all of those, we are the smoking gun,” said Shelby Keyser, whose children experienced some symptoms. “My kids are the smoking gun.”

She turned to other parents and asked them to raise a hand if their children, too, were a “smoking gun” example, The Monroe Monitor reported. The majority of the parents in the room raised their hands.

Still Not Cleaned

Six weeks after the tense town hall, the EPA found that PCB levels rose after cleanup, reaching the highest concentrations yet, according to an agency memo. These levels put anyone up to age 19 at risk, based on recommended thresholds.

Parents grew more desperate. Their complaints were not prompting aggressive action, so they turned to social media, forming a Healthy Sky Valley Advocacy Group on Facebook, with daily or weekly posts encouraging parents to report illnesses and sharing articles about PCB exposure.

A Change.org petition calling for the school district to relocate Sky Valley students was signed by 568 people and listed names of friends and family who had fallen ill at Sky Valley.

Some parents reluctantly pulled their children from the program. Teachers quit or sought reassignments or filed workers’ compensation claims, although the district would not say how many staffers left Sky Valley during this time frame.

“We really tried everything,” one mother told The Seattle Times. She withdrew her children from the school after they experienced severe health complications, including cognitive problems and early puberty. She requested anonymity for her children’s privacy. “We tried to get the school district to listen. We tried to get the health district to listen. We did all of this stuff and still nobody would listen.”

In fall 2017, the EPA delivered a clean bill of health to Sky Valley after district officials certified in writing that all PCB-containing light fixtures had been removed and that a litany of problems had been resolved, completing a multipoint plan the district had penned at the EPA’s request.

But that wasn’t the case.

Contrary to what Monroe School District reported to the EPA — and to parents — federal inspectors in October 2019 found PCBs in “multiple” light fixtures and in an air filter, discovered that classroom carpet that had been previously flagged hadn’t been fully removed, and raised concerns about PCB-laden caulk in the walls, EPA documents show.

They raised the same problems a year later.

“We are very concerned that PCB contaminated fixtures continue to be found, six years into the process of inspecting and taking inventory, cleaning and removing and disposing of light fixtures,” the EPA wrote in November 2020. “The EPA recommends [Sky Valley] address these concerns with more urgency than has yet been demonstrated.”

The EPA can penalize the district and school, the letter reads. That would be a rare step for the agency, and Bill Dunbar, a regional EPA spokesperson, would not comment on whether it plans to fine the district.

Last year, Monroe School officials again committed to addressing lingering problems, submitting a plan to the EPA. That plan still “did not fully meet our expectations,” so the EPA offered guidance, Dunbar said.

Removing PCB-laden light fixtures is a “no-brainer,” said Hornbuckle, the director of Iowa’s Superfund Research Program. While it wouldn’t completely clear the campus of PCBs, it would likely mitigate one of the highest exposure risks.

“Removing those PCB ballasts is something the state should be doing,” she said, adding that replacing outdated fixtures with energy-efficient lights has saved other schools money.

For some Sky Valley families, the consequences of the delayed action were devastating.

“This Stuff Is Everywhere”

In a King County courtroom last summer, Sky Valley teachers described their deteriorating health to a jury. Experts testified about the scientific links between PCBs and brain damage.

Convinced of the connection, a jury awarded three teachers, including Leahy, $185 million for exposure to PCBs at Sky Valley. Four months later, eight parents, teachers and students won a collective $62 million jury award against Monsanto, the chemical manufacturer of PCBs.

The litigation has resulted in one of the largest awards nationwide for individual PCB exposures. The Sky Valley verdicts include punitive damages, which are allowed under state law in Missouri, where Monsanto was headquartered.

In all, more than 200 parents and teachers have sued, claiming brain damage from exposure to PCBs. At least 17 other lawsuits are awaiting trial.

The complaints catalog many illnesses, but the lawsuits focus on linking cognitive problems to PCB exposure. It’s difficult to link illnesses to specific chemical exposures without more scientific research into their effects.

Bayer Pharmaceuticals, which in 2018 acquired chemical giant Monsanto, denied the allegations both in the lawsuit and in a statement. The company plans to appeal the jury verdicts.

Many parents, teachers and students with pending lawsuits declined to speak to The Seattle Times.

Leahy, now retired, said she doesn’t expect to collect her share of the $185 million jury award. “But it was never about the money. It was the only way to get the public to listen.”

The PCB exposure impaired Leahy’s memory and brain function. She couldn’t stand in a Sky Valley classroom without having headaches, dizziness and breathing problems, she said.

Others testified in court that their children developed depression and suicidal tendencies.

Leahy wears a bracelet that a fellow teacher gave her. The letters NA stand for “Not Alone,” a show of support for the legal battle Leahy was in over the chemical exposure at her former school.

(Rajah Bose/Special to The Seattle Times)

Cheryl Tye Pritchett, a mother who joined her children on campus multiple times a week until late 2016, testified in court that she developed a persistent cough, stomachaches and eventually fogginess and memory issues.

“I’m afraid to find out how severely damaged I am,” Tye Pritchett told a jury. Her children also got sick, she said.

Leahy’s attorney, Rick Friedman, whose firm represents all the Sky Valley plaintiffs, said the lawsuits point to a larger problem, which may be unfolding in schools across the state and nation.

“It’s kind of like lead paint in schools from a decade ago,” Friedman said. “How long until we realize that this stuff is everywhere?”

Pollet, the state lawmaker, said after learning about the Sky Valley saga from The Times that he intends to raise PCB concerns with fellow lawmakers this legislative session.

But he expects school districts to argue, as with lead testing, that remediation of PCBs would be financially devastating.

In 2020, Washington became the first state to successfully sue Monsanto over PCBs, in a lawsuit focused on the chemical in waterways. The chemical giant settled for $95 million, nearly $60 million of which went to the state’s general fund, where the Legislature can direct it to remediation of waterways — or other exposure points, including schools.

“Not Enforceable by Law”

The Sky Valley litigation originally took aim at the Monroe School District and Snohomish Health District, accusing the agencies of negligence for the slowly unfolding crisis at Sky Valley.

But King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North dismissed the health district from the lawsuit after the district argued that loosely written state laws do not require enforcement or action when health inspectors find hazards at schools.

Heather Thomas, a spokesperson for the Snohomish Health District, said in an email that “a general duty by a public agency to inspect schools is just that — a duty to the general public only, and it does not result in a specific duty to enforce in this instance.”

Monroe School District also pointed to an absence in state and federal law of any requirement to remove PCB-laden material. It argued in court documents that it complied with EPA guidelines, and PCB light removal can take “5-10 years.” State and federal environmental agencies recommend removing lights before they leak, but these “recommendations are not enforceable by law,” reads the district’s report defending its actions at Sky Valley.

The school district, in declining interview requests, cited a sealed settlement proposal with Sky Valley teachers, parents and students that has not yet been finalized.

The district told the Times in July — after the first jury award — that the school has been cleared of PCB material.

But an EPA spokesperson said the agency is waiting on Monroe School District to submit a cleanup plan before it can make a “formal decision,” which could include another inspection, giving the school an all-clear, or issuing fines.

Meanwhile, at the state level, environmental officials, who flagged PCBs in schools as a research priority as early as 2015, are just now building a database of potential PCB hot spots after being delayed by a legislative appropriation.

The department only started surveying school districts last summer, beginning in Eastern Washington. The results of the survey should help the state know whether Sky Valley is an outlier or a bellwether.

“How many kids are sitting in classrooms exposed to PCBs and they don’t even know it,” Leahy said. “How could they know? It doesn’t hit you immediately. It’s like a slow death. You just get sicker and sicker and sicker until it’s too late.”

Taylor Blatchford of The Seattle Times contributed reporting.

Continue reading “Toxic PCBs Festered at This Public School for Eight Years as Students and Teachers Grew Sicker”

The top 1%: Should wealth have its limits?

The richest one percent of Americans now owns 16 times the wealth of the bottom 50 percent. That disparity has brought to light questions about the need for billionaires – and their need for even more money. Correspondent Mark Whitaker talks with activist-filmmaker Abigail Disney and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy about whether acquiring a billion or more dollars is a valued goal; and with professor Ingrid Robeyns, who proposes the concept of “limitarianism” – determining a moral limit to how much wealth one can accumulate.

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