Superintendent Perry announces Marblehead custodians have been contaminating organic garden

The organic garden at the Malcolm L. Bell school in Marblehead. (Owen O'Rourke)

MARBLEHEAD — Families are gravely concerned about the safety of their children after finding out the organic garden they’ve been eating from for years is being tested for contamination.

Superintendent Maryann Perry announced in an email sent out on Monday night, that the custodial staff at the Malcolm L. Bell School has been discarding floor cleaning water into the school’s Organic Garden for an unidentified number of years. The outdoor garden, which serves pre-kindergarten to third grade, includes a pizza garden and a raised planter area with six cedar boxes in which they grow vegetables, herbs, and fruit that students and faculty either eat themselves or donate to food pantries in the area.

The superintendent notes in the email that the discarding of the contaminated water, including residue from stripper, wax, neutralizer, and floor cleaner, was against district protocol. She also attached the Material Safety Data Sheets so parents could inform themselves on the chemicals and symptoms that may occur after being exposed to them.

“I’m troubled by it obviously because my grandson was a student there recently,” said Board of Selectmen member Harry Christensen. “I’m not sure if he’s eaten those vegetables, but I’m very concerned.”

Christensen acknowledged that Perry has announced a thorough investigation into the discarding of the contaminated water and that he trusts she will get the job done. He does believe that someone needs to be held responsible for the lapse in judgment, but he knows everyone needs to wait until the investigation has been completed.

The email noted that The Board of Health removed 18 to 24 inches of soil from the lower beds in the garden, replacing it with certified organic soil.

“Vegetables coming from the Upper Bell School garden lower beds has the potential to be contaminated with cleaning products,” Perry said in the email. “The vegetables in the lower beds have been removed and discarded.”

Although Christensen has faith in the investigation led by the superintendent, not everyone in the community does. The grandfather of a student at the Bell School, who wishes to remain anonymous, was frozen when he read the email. He couldn’t help but think about the number of kids who have spent these last few years playing in that soil, which no one knew was being contaminated until this week.

“If you took a teaspoon of one of these cleaning solvents you could die,” he said. “I think the police should be brought in or an independent detective should be brought in. We already know they did it, now we just want to know why.”

The grandfather recalls a time last year when his grandson fell ill and was rushed to the hospital after he spent an entire week vomiting. The doctors were never able to diagnose the cause, according to him.

“It was really serious and how do I know that this wasn’t related to that,” he said.

“I’ve been told by a friend whose husband was a custodian at the school that the staff were told not to empty that water in the school drains because it could corrode the pipes and would cost the school money to fix them. Are they disgruntled guys who hate kids from Marblehead? Was there intent there?”

The grandfather wonders how long ago the administration found out, or if they knew about it and still allowed the kids to play in, and even eat from, the soil. He doesn’t trust anyone from the school department, including the superintendent, who might be protecting their own job.

“It’s so ironic because the whole scheme is this garden is organic and chemical free and parents want their kids to eat that because it’s good for you,” he said. “Then they contaminate the beds with hazardous waste.”

In the email sent out to Bell School parents, Perry advises anyone who has harvested vegetables from the lower beds to discard them. She also mentioned that anyone who has consumed vegetables from the garden or may have questions, should contact the Board of Health or see their physician.

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