Connecticut Foundation for Environmentally Safe Schools

New Haven County, Connecticut

Healing Sick Schools

Karen Singer, CT Business Journal

8/9/2004: A year after a bill on indoor air quality in schools became state law in Connecticut, several people who worked for three years to enact Public Act No. 03-220, "An Act Concerning Indoor Air Quality in Schools," now question its effectiveness.

"I'm very concerned about the lack of oversight," says Joellen Lawson, who heads the non-profit Connecticut Foundation for Environmentally Safe Schools. A former teacher at McKinley Elementary School in Fairfield, Lawson has testified at federal and state hearings, and links her current health problems to mold exposure in the school.

"The legislation is an incredible first step," adds Connecticut Education Association President Rosemary Coyle. "But we're continuing to follow up to ensure schools are safe and healthy places."

The new law, which took effect July 1, 2003, requires local boards of education to submit an annual report to the state Commissioner of Education on the condition of their buildings, including indoor air quality problems and maintenance plans, and to conduct comprehensive inspections and evaluations every five years.

The first annual reports mandated by the new law have been collected but not collated, and should be available by fall, says David R. Wedge, manager of the state Department of Education's School Facilities Unit.

But even without hard data, Guilford State Rep. Patricia M. Widlitz (D-98), who chairs the General Assembly's environment committee and is on the education committee, believes indoor air quality problems are commonplace.

"We heard testimony from school districts and children all over the state," says Widlitz, who championed passage of the air-quality bill.

"What people should understand is the indoor air quality issue is a relatively new phenomenon - and there's a reason for it," adds education department spokesperson Thomas Murphy.

Design changes in the 1970s led to tightly sealed buildings and use of moisture absorbing materials such as wallboard and ceiling tiles, Murphy explains, which "have proven to be a perfect environment for mold, especially if the ventilation system is not optimal."

Vigilant maintenance is key to fixing - and preventing - moisture and mold problems, Murphy adds, but all too often tight school budgets have resulted in inadequate or deferred maintenance.

Under the recent legislation, school construction and renovation projects must adhere to new rules, including Phase I environmental assessments and a sharper pitch for roofs.

Funds also are available to abate indoor air-quality problems where costs exceed $100,000 and an industrial hygienist certifies the existence of an indoor air emergency. So far only three districts, including Seymour and Oxford, have sought such funding, all for moisture problems.

"We understand that the reason so few schools have applied is because of their fear of being labeled a school with an 'emergency,'" says Kenneth Foscue, who heads the environmental and occupational health assessment program for the state Department of Public Health's (DPH) Division of Environmental Health.

But environmental issues can create big headaches for school districts - particularly when local residents believe officials are not handling matters promptly or properly.

Former Amity Regional Board of Education member Lorrie Cavaliere has kept the spotlight on environmental problems in her school district, where residents voted in a recent referendum to approve $68 million to renovate two junior high schools and build an addition to the senior high school.

Cavaliere has taken photographs to document water and ventilation problems and hired her own experts. Recent asbestos testing that she paid for at Bethany Junior High School, for example, led to a clean-up and continuing scrutiny by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

In a February 2004 report, Blumenthal blasted the DPH for "failing to carry out its duties" following the discovery of asbestos in several Brookfield schools, uncovered as a result of independent testing by a teacher.

A burgeoning number of front-page stories on mold, asbestos and toxic chemical problems are forcing school districts to become more accountable. Last summer's unusually hot and sticky weather, for instance, produced a bumper crop of mold in many Connecticut schools, causing opening delays in Trumbull, Greenwich and other towns.

Over the past two years, the state DPH has fielded more than 150 calls, primarily related to indoor air-quality issues, according to Brian Toal, director of the department's environmental and occupational assessment unit.

"The calls are mostly about moisture and mold and health symptoms associated with mold," Toal says. "We still get general air-quality calls, the so-called 'sick building syndrome,' and a lot of those are due to ventilation issues." Construction and renovation projects also generate calls concerning new floor and new carpet odors. "One of the big things we continue to deal with over the years is cleaning up mercury spills," Toal says. "A lot of the old schools have large jars of mercury hanging around, which contains toxins that attack brain cells if inhaled."

DPH also deals with asbestos and radon calls.

State lawmakers already have addressed some school environmental concerns. In 2002, children began breathing better air outside school entrances after the legislature passed a bill limiting school bus idling to no more than three minutes. The action followed widespread publicity about a study on high concentrations of unhealthful exhaust fumes from buses waiting to transport children.

Recently, the health effects of indoor air quality problems have caused consternation in several school districts.

Acting Amity Superintendent Michael Nast says that between ten and 14 junior high and high school students, out of a total of 2,500, are being tutored at home because of complaints related to indoor air quality. The district also is paying for one student to attend school elsewhere, and at least one other parent is seeking a similar solution.

In addition, the state's judicial Web site lists several "defective premises" lawsuits against the Amity district (which encompasses Woodbridge, Orange and Bethany) that appear to be related to indoor air quality.

John Santilli, chief of allergy and immunology at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, says government studies and his own research show a relationship between mold in schools and allergic diseases. Santilli has studied mold problems at several schools, including Fairfield's McKinley, where health complaints by more than three dozen students and faculty led Fairfield officials to close the elementary school in 2000 and spend more than $28 million rebuilding it.

Santilli also says he has seen several hundred children, teachers and employees from schools all over the country, including nearly 200 from Connecticut.

"Mold can trigger symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to coughs, headaches, vertigo and learning difficulties," Santilli says. "But it's not unusual for school boards to stonewall and hope children and teachers go elsewhere.

"If a child becomes sick in school and gets better over summer or if they're home-bound [tutored] and they get sick when they go back in the building, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the connection," Santilli adds.

Other health professionals are more circumspect.

"Our bottom line is some of the concern about mold may be overstated," DPH's Toal says. "It's very hard to make a cause-and-effect connection with any one disease or symptom."

Leslie Balch, director of health for the Quinnipiac Valley Health District, which responds to public health issues for schools in Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge, believes "Each individual should be assessed in relationship to their environment, including all of the places they spend many hours."

Adding fuel to the fire are studies such as a 2003 report by Environment & Human Health Inc. (EHH), a North-Haven non-profit, which reported that 9.7 percent of Connecticut children in kindergarten through fifth grade have asthma. Children in large cities have higher rates (13.1 percent) than those in rural areas (8.8 percent).

A previous EHH study, done in 1999, reported an average asthma rate of 7.8 percent.

For the latest report, school nurses were surveyed about K-5 children attending public and private schools, and building conditions in those schools. Results suggested "higher asthma rates occurred in schools located into or below a hill; with flat roof construction, roof leaks, fixed carpets, cockroaches or renovations during occupancy."

Based on the new study, EHH president Nancy Alderman estimates 64,000 Connecticut children in grades K-12 have asthma. A recent report by the private, non-profit Institute of Medicine (IOM), based on a review of scientific studies, found moisture and mold in buildings may cause mild, generally reversible coughing, wheezing and other upper respiratory symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals but also can cause severe reactions in sensitive individuals, particularly those with asthma.

The uproar over environmental problems in schools, however, most often hinges on how officials respond - or fail to.

In fall 2000, a planned renovation project at Hamden Middle School was derailed when soil testing turned up high levels of arsenic, lead and other toxins. Opened in 1954, the school was built on a dump for industrial and domestic waste.

"We immediately called in DEP [the state's Department of Environmental Protection] to assist with clean-up and remediation," recalls Hamden Schools Superintendent Alida Begina. Workers removed topsoil and replaced it with clean fill over a water-permeable fabric. Town officials soon decided to jettison the renovation plan and build a new "green" school with state-of-the-art air-quality controls.

The new site is a former golf course where pesticide-filled topsoil on the greens is being removed prior to construction. The new school project is slated for completion in 2006 and will cost about $54 million.

To help allay neighborhood concerns, DEP set up a local office, and testing is still underway in residential areas near the middle school.

Hamden officials also reacted swiftly last month when a burst pipe at Hamden High School caused a flood.

"We worked quickly to mobilize our town resources and bring in services to fix it," says Mayor Carl Amento. He estimates clean-up costs at about $300,000.

But the best intentions sometimes go awry even when local officials are trying their best to fix things.

In Easton, heated discussions over mold and other environmental problems at Staples Elementary School, including student and employee health complaints, resulted in a 1998 decision build a new school, which is scheduled to open next fall. In the interim, the district hired a firm, Microb Phase Inc. (which previously worked for schools in Manchester and Bristol) to handle indoor air-quality problems. However, the firm's principal, Ronald Schongar, was arrested last month for allegedly generating false air quality reports and treating schools with a product not registered with the EPA.

"What we are doing now is repairing a good part of the roof of the old building and replacing ceiling tiles," says Allen Fossbender, who became school superintendent in April.F

In the Amity school district, officials grappling with indoor air-quality issues also have had to contend with community anger over a financial scandal leading to 13 failed referendums to pass the school budget last year, changes in board of education members and the departure of the school superintendent.

Despite their battles with Amity officials, Cavaliere and at least one parent whose daughter is being tutored at home praise the efforts of acting superintendent Nast.

"We want our parents to feel comfortable," says Nast, who is leaving the school system in October and putting in place plans to follow in his absence. He's working with state and local environmental and public health officials to quell concerns about asbestos and mold, and developing a protocol for dealing with health complaints.

Students at the Orange and Bethany junior highs should be in portable classrooms by January 2005. Seventh- and eighth-graders will return once those schools are renovated, but ninth graders will move to mobile classrooms at the Woodbridge high school until a new addition for them is built. Nash says the high school construction project also should resolve outstanding moisture and drainage problems.

State officials are advising school districts to be more proactive in their maintenance efforts, to avert potential indoor air quality disasters.

Since 1999, the Department of Public Health has advocated the use of "Tools for Schools," a DEP program focusing on maintenance issues.

Schools form teams with teachers, custodians, parents, nurses and administrators, who are trained to observe environmental conditions, develop maintenance plans and make sure they're implemented.

Participation is up substantially from last year, according to Foscue, who oversees the program. He says 1,800 trained people now are on teams in 370 schools. There are 1,090 K-12 public schools in 166 school districts throughout the state. Foscue says the program also can be used by private schools, and may be tailored for use in universities.

"We'd like to see the Tools for Schools program in the hands of every principal," says Kevin Daly, president of the Connecticut Parent Teacher Association, which supported the indoor air-quality bill. "We'd also like to see the use of non-toxic chemicals and a minimalist pest-management approach, rather just blindly spraying whether it's needed or not."

Foscue cites two reasons for promoting Tools for Schools.

"We don't have the regulatory power to make schools clean up" he says, "and there are no indoor air quality standards."

Lawson and others say such deficiencies should be rectified by strengthening the school indoor air-quality legislation.

"Our next project is oversight accountability," the former teacher says. "As a survivor, my biggest concern is there are students and teachers who are getting preventable illnesses, and there are few people who want to deal with this problem."

Daly believes indoor air-quality standards and better procedures must be established.

"Prevention is the goal, and there should be clear steps to take when a school is suspected of having a problem," he says. "These should include an accurate assessment, using methods that are scientifically acceptable."

Guilford lawmaker Widlitz intends to scrutinize the annual school facility report results "as soon as the material is available," then "consult with" the chair of the education committee. "We need to evaluate the success of this particular program," Widlitz says, "and possibly take a look at going further."

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