Connecticut Foundation
for Environmentally Safe Schools

Fairfield County

Criminal probe of Microb Phase goes beyond Easton

January 22, 2004:
Bill Bittar, Associate Editor, Fairfield Minuteman
Samuel Staples Elementary School's old building has suffered from roof leaks and mold growth for a number of years. But educators had been comforted by the fact that the company, Microb Phase Laboratories, sprayed the entire facility with a mold-killing agent, protecting the health of children, teachers and administrators - or so they thought.

"Microb Phase only uses one solution, a spongecide," Nancy McEwen, a school board member and former chairman, had said in support of the company. "Its claim to fame is this proprietary mixture it has used over the past at Staples."

That was in December. Now, while a criminal investigation of the company is underway, McEwen said she feels as victimized as everyone else.

Local and federal law enforcement officials have found Microb Phase was not licensed to spray Microbe Shield, a mold preventative produced by AEGIS Environmental in Midland, Mich. which Microb Phase claimed it used at Staples. In addition, the manufacturer says it never sold the product to Microb Phase.

Now investigators are trying to determine exactly what was sprayed in the school and whether it could be harmful to children.

Anything that kills mold could adversely affect the health of people, according to Gil Cormier of Occupational Risk Control Services in New Britain, a firm hired to inspect Staples. It is important to find out what was sprayed, he added.

"Anything that destroys living cells, we want to use caution in our usage," he said. "We have to take precautions when we use chemicals that can affect living cells."

Under investigation

The criminal investigation has federal and local officials following the trail of a company that has used several different names and worked in schools throughout Connecticut and other states, including New Jersey. Microb Phase's address is listed as 14 Nottingham Way South, Clifton Park, N.Y. on its Web site.

Out-of-state properties owned by Microb Phase President Ronald Schongar were raided by state, federal and local agents on Jan. 14 and evidence was seized, according to sources close to the investigation, who asked that their names not be published.

Easton Police Chief John Solomon would neither confirm nor deny that the raids took place.

"The company and Schongar are certainly a focus of the investigations, along with various other avenues that are being explored," Solomon said.

"We're still investigating. Any environmental crimes or other crimes will be referred to the U.S. attorney's office for prosecution. Though it is a preliminary investigation, there is more than significant cause to look into these allegations and complaints by school officials and parents."

The Easton Police Department is working closely with Michael Hubbard, the lead investigator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division for New England. When contacted at his Boston office, Hubbard said it was too early to comment on the joint investigation.

Schongar was reached at Microb Phase on Monday.

"I really can't comment right now," he said. "But eventually I will be able to tell you the whole story."

Snow and frigid temperatures kept children home Thursday and Friday, but both Easton Board of Education Chairman Andrea Rowland and Interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Jokubaitis determined that school would be in session at Staples as usual this week.

They relied on the judgment of Easton Health Director Dr. Christopher Michos.

"The health department is not aware of any illnesses," Michos said last Thursday. "There is no evidence of health concerns at this time to teachers, students and staff. The school will be open."

Michos has two children, a fourth-grader and a first-grader, who attend Staples.

Concerns surface

The Easton Police Department was approached by First Selectman William Kupinse on Dec. 3 about concerns of the School Building Committee 2003, a committee formed with the charge of improving the condition of Samuel Staples Elementary School. Kupinse had information from committee co-chairs Sheila Ozalis and Edward Czernik and committee member Beverlee Dacey, who had started a probe of Microb Phase on their own.

"School Building Committee 2003 found problems in regard to documentation on the spraying and went to the company that makes Microbe Shield," Kupinse said. "It's only sold to authorized dealers - he [Schongar] isn't. They hunted around and the product information sheets they were given apparently weren't the right ones."

Andrea Rowland, the current chairman of the Board of Education, said the school district's central office had a difficult time finding the sheets documenting what Microb Phase sprayed because of the turnover of office staff and because the company had filed the papers under a different name: "Air Tech Environmental Services."

That name is also listed on the letterhead of a customer testimonial letter on Microb Phase's Web site.

Cormier, who was hired by the building committee in 2003 to determine whether ceiling tiles had to be removed, said he expected to find extensive microbial and fungal growth due to repeated roof leaks over the years, but instead found a reading near zero, which he considered "suspect." He believed an agent was sprayed to kill mold, but said he was surprised when he saw the sheet saying Microbe Shield was used. That product would likely not have produced the results that his testing revealed, he said.

"The type of product is siloxane based and provides a coating resistance for microbial growth," Cormier said, "but doesn't kill or provide disinfectant properties. But that's one ingredient. There may be others with disinfectant properties not listed."

Though there had been an extremely low reading for live mold, Cormier said he recommended the tiles be removed nevertheless, because even "nonviable" mold spores could cause allergy symptoms.

Mother sparks probe

Sheila Ozalis pulled her daughter out of Samuel Staples Elementary School last year after the second-grader's respiratory problems had worsened. That October, the girl had also started complaining of joint pains, stomach aches and headaches.

The family had to rush their daughter to Norwalk Hospital's emergency room on three consecutive nights, and decided it was time to take their seven-year-old out of Staples.

Since then, Ozalis said her daughter's health has improved dramatically, adding she also took her son, a kindergartner, out of Staples in February 2003 when the boy was suffering from recurring sinus infections and a chronic cough. They now attend private school.

"Since he left Staples he hasn't had one sinus infection or cough," Ozalis said.

Though she now feels her children's health is safe, the concerned mother decided to become involved with efforts to remediate mold and improve conditions at Staples. She joined the building committee.

"We thank God we had the financial needs to pull them out and get them into another school," Ozalis said. "Some people don't, and that is why I decided to stay involved."

Soon after joining the building committee, Ozalis said she "found it odd" that the school system hired an upstate New York firm to test Staples for mold and to remove it. She said she also found Microb Phase's documentation of test reports and what it sprayed "curious."

Ozalis said Schongar did not return numerous phone calls and had canceled opportunities to meet with the building committee to answer its questions.


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