LA QUINTA, Calif. - "Too many of my co-workers, friends, and now former students that I know of have developed some form of cancer or another," said Gayle Cohen, who taught at La Quinta Middle School from 1988 when it opened, until 2004.
In 2003, doctors diagnosed her with cancer. Nearly a dozen of her coworkers heard the same news.
"All of a sudden it was this, this, this, our heads were whirling around. I can't believe this," said Linda Brown, another former teacher diagnosed in 2000. "It was so scary."
The teachers alerted the Desert Sands Unified School District in 2004, concerned the number of cancers had something to do with the school.
"If there is even the slight possibility that people on campus are at risk, it's the district's responsibility to look into that seriously," Cohen said.
The district says it did by calling in Dr. John Morgan, a regional epidemiologist with the California Cancer Registry (Region 5).
"A true cancer excess is not identified because it does not exist," said John Morgan in a 2004 interviw with CBS Local 2.
Morgan reported this to the district and to the teachers, disputing the number of cancer cases at the school. Eleven teachers said they had cancer, but Morgan said he could only find five of them in the registry.
Teachers living with the disease at the time expressed shock.
"There were people in the room that were missing breasts, ovaries, some were missing different parts of their bodies from operations from cancer, and he said I don't believe you," said teacher Tim Forrester in a 2004 interview also with CBS Local 2.
That's when another epidemiogolist and physician Dr. Sam Milham volunteered to investigate the cancers at no charge to the district. Milham lives part-time in the valley and specializes in public health and the occupational cancer risks of electricity.
The district, Milham said, rebuffed him.
"They're afraid of litigation. If they admitted that the school is causing cancer, then the teachers could sue the school," Milham said.
Through the help of Gayle Cohen, Milham and his colleague, electronic engineer Lloyd Morgan, gained access to La Quinta Middle School after hours to measure levels of what they call "dirty electricity" in the classrooms.
Dirty electricity occurs when an interruption in electrical current flow emits bursts of radiofrequency radiation. The World Health Organization classifies RF radiation as a possible carcinogen.
Dirty power can be measured using a Graham-Stetzer meter, which plugs into any outlet. While most homes and buildings measure under 100 units, Milham says La Quinta Middle School measured off the charts.
"You'd like to get below 50 units. That place is like 700-1000 and 2000 and more," Milham said.
Milham and Lloyd Morgan believe the teachers developed cancer through prolonged exposure to dirty electricity at the school.
"Your immune system gets wrecked. Your body is making cancer cells and your immune system chews them up, but if your immune system goes bad, that's why you get the cancers, Milham said.
When Milham reported his findings to then-superintendent Dr. Doris Wilson, he got a letter from the school district's attorney, threatening action for criminal trespassing. So he encouraged the teachers to file a California Occupational Safety and Health Act (CAL OSHA) complaint, which they did in 2005.
That got the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) involved.
"They measured every outlet in the school and we have that data," Milham said.
Using the same Graham-Stetzer meter, Dr. Raymond Neutra from CDHS also found high readings of what he called "circuit voltage vibrations" or dirty electricity in some of the classrooms. He referenced the reading in letters to the district in 2007.
In 2008, Milham and Lloyd Morgan used Neutra's readings in a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, linking an increased cancer risk in teachers at La Quinta Middle School with direct exposure to rooms with dirty electricity.
"The thing that saved us, was one of the teachers saved the classroom assignment rosters every fall," Milham said. "We had that for all the years and once we had their readings from the rooms, we saw it predicted the cancer rates."
That Milham says, was the smoking gun.
"That makes me angry. It makes me angry because the whole thing was never acknowledged," Brown said. "It just makes me angry."
Milham and Lloyd Morgan's study revealed the number of teachers at the school who developed cancer (16 of 137) was nearly three times more than expected based on cancer risk data from the California Cancer Registry (CCR). A total 18 cancers were found (in 16 teachers) but only 6.5 were expected. The CCR is the same agency Dr. John Morgan works for.
"We didn't find a cancer excess in the teachers, we found inaccuracies in the reports by Dr. Milham and Lloyd Morgan," John Morgan said in a phone interview with KESQ.
His argument is that the study used statewide rather than regional data, which he believes underestimated the number of cancers expected. John Morgan says he found only 12 teachers with cancer in the registry in 2008.
Lloyd Morgan says if they had used Region 5 data (which includes Riverside County), the number of expected cancers would have been even lower than 6.5. Meaning even fewer teachers should have been diagnosed.
The number didn't alarm him.
"You're saying 12, that's pretty close to expected?" asked reporter Natalie Brunell.
"That was 2.1 times higher than expected, but that's well within the range of random error," Morgan said.
Morgan and the district also claim Milham didn't have correct teacher information to conduct the study because the district only gave employment records to the registry.
"That information was not used by Dr. Milham. He created a list himself," said Mary Perry, spokeswoman for Desert Sands Unified School District.
Milham says his list came directly from the teachers and their room assignments. In letters to the district, Dr. Raymond Neutra of the state health department confirmed Milham's list was accurate.
Then, in May 2007, the district used one of Neutra's letters in a news release announcing the school got a clean bill of health.
"There were, in fact, of course cases of cancer but they were not attributed to anything on the school property," Perry said.
The news release quotes Neutra saying, "We are 'prone to disbelieve' the circuit voltage vibration hypothesis." That's neutra's term for dirty electricity.
But taking a closer look at multiple letters from Dr. Neutra to the district reveals he prescribed further investigation:
Between April and May 2007, Neutra wrote:
- he was "prone to doubt the hypthosis but not virtually certain that it is not true."
- there was an excess of cancer "unlikely due to chance."
- levels of circuit voltage vibrations were "unusually high compared to other settings."
- the vibrations "could be addressed by further electric detective work and perhaps eliminated."
- and finally, that "finding and eliminating internal sources of circuit voltage vibrations would seem to be the most straightforward way of dealing with the teacher's concerns."
Neutra, who retired from the department, declined an interview with KESQ but confirmed in an e-mail that "was and is his position."
The district maintains there's no problem with the school.
"There is no such existence of anything like that at the school site," Perry said. "I need to point out to you that no one has contacted us indicating they have an unfortunate medical situation."
But former teachers and now former students are sharing their stories of cancer with each other. They say they still wonder if the district did everything it could to rule out the possibility there was something making them sick at the school.
One former student is Natalie Piccola, who in her twenties, developed a rare tumor on her spleen, followed by nonmelanoma skin cancer.
"My doctor was blown away. At my age when I had gotten that he shouldn't have seen anything like that," Piccola said.
It turns out Piccola had both Gayle Cohen and Linda Brown as teachers, and sat in both of their classrooms, where Milham found high levels of dirty electricity.
All three were diagnosed around the same time.
"Well that's kind of scary because these are people's lives that are at risk," Piccola said.
"Nobody can do anything about what you don't know, but from the point where they know, it's extremely disappointing to put children and teachers at risk," Cohen said.
In Europe and Australia, there are international policies limiting exposure to radiofrequency radiation, which Milham says dirty electricity emits.
In the U.S. no federal regulations exist.
Milham says one solution is for the school to put Graham-Stetzer filters in the classrooms. Just plugging them into an outlet cuts levels of dirty electriciy ten-fold.
"As you put the filters in it comes down in the whole space," Milham said.
The filters cost $30 dollars and Neutra at the health department called them "a low cost way of addressing the concern" in one of his letters to DSUSD.
The district, he said, complained to his department about this recommendation.
Milham says he's still willing to clean up the school for free and try to determine the source of the dirty electricity. He suspects it might originate from a defective utility substation about a mile from the school.
"It's a big problem and it's getting worse. And no one wants to do anything about it," Milham said.
"We would certainly do anything for any of our students and staff in order to protect them," Perry said.
If you worked at or attended La Quinta Middle School and were diagnosed with a tumor or cancer, contact Ellen Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated Notable deaths of 2017