Bizarre elementary school sickness remains unsolved

Officials say they have no idea why 50 students at Malcolm X reported dizziness and nausea Thursday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Update, April 26: The school district is no longer actively investigating the feelings of dizziness and nausea that affected 50 kids at Malcolm X last week.

“We are not planning further testing at this time, have restored normal use of the auditorium and have not identified a cause of the students’ feeling sick,” BUSD spokesman Charles Burress said in an email this week. As of Wednesday, the district was just awaiting potential final direction from the city.

Last weekend, further assessments were done to test for airborne carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen sulfide, oxygen and volatile organic compounds, the district said in a statement. Nothing abnormal was detected, according to the district. Evaluators also conducted a microbial/fungal test, and ran air scrubbers in the auditorium “as a precautionary measure.”

Some families and staff suspected the sickness might have been caused by a small sewage leak in an auditorium closet the week before, or by the sanitation products used to clean it up. The district has said administrators do not suspect the minor leak to be the cause.


Maintenance workers used products that have been approved for school usage by both the district and the state, Burress said. They used the Foamy Q&A disinfectant made by Spartan, and Cleansource’s Cleaner 500 floor product.

Original story, April 19: A day after 50 kids mysteriously fell ill at Malcolm X Elementary School, authorities are still struggling to figure out the cause of the sickness.

The Berkeley Fire Department conducted a host of tests Thursday, finding no evidence of any hazardous substances in the school auditorium where people began getting dizzy that morning. Nobody was found to have a serious illness that required hospitalization.

“We do plan to do more testing tomorrow,” said Charles Burress, Berkeley Unified spokesman, in an email Friday.

A number of people associated with Malcolm X told Berkeleyside there was a sewage leak last week that they suspected could have caused the health issues Thursday.

The school district confirmed the leak, but officials said they don’t believe it could have caused the mass illness. They said students had used the auditorium every day after the leak occurred without getting sick until Thursday.

“A week ago, on Friday, a small amount of matter came out of a sewage pipe in an auditorium closet that was opened up to unclog a toilet on a floor above,” Burress said in an email Thursday afternoon. “The closet area was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and we do not have reason at this time to believe that it could have contributed to this morning’s problem.”


Berkeleyside has asked the district about the process and products used to disinfect the closet.

A Malcolm X student (name removed to protect privacy) wrote a thank you card to firefighters. Photo: Courtesy

Although the school was never fully closed down, most children were picked up by their parents after the principal sent a message about the issues, said people who were at the campus Thursday. Several parents said their kids continued reporting headaches and nausea later in the day, with many saying they felt better within a few hours of leaving the school. Two adults experienced symptoms too, according to a BUSD statement.

One student wrote a card to the firefighters who came to test the children and the auditorium, thanking them.

“It was a pleasure hanging out with you,” the student wrote in pencil. “At first we were dropping like flies but we are okay now.”