School district violating air quality standards

School district violating air quality standards

By Shellie Berg

By Shellie Berg

Staff Reporter

Following air quality tests at Guilford High School, the Illinois Department of Labor’s (IDOL) Safety Inspection and Education Division found that the district might be in violation of the Illinois Health and Safety Act.

The case is currently open, and the district hasn’t appealed the validity of citations to the IDOL. As of Aug. 29, the district must appeal within 15 days .

Joe Lewison, IDOL’s downstate area manager, wouldn’t disclose details of the case or the findings. Student Amanda Block’s parents, Doug and Chris, the school district and IDOL found various fungi, including Stachybotrys, which in high levels can be toxic.

IDOL conducted the inspections because of a complaint from the Rockford Education Association, which represents teachers, secretaries and maintenance staff at Rockford schools.

The association wanted to check the air quality following an inspection by experts hired by the school district and the Blocks, who filed a lawsuit alleging that toxic conditions caused Amanda’s asthma attacks. The companies they hired found Stachybotrys.

In an IDOL notice of citation for violation of Occupational and Health Safety Standards, sent to Superintendent Alan Brown, IDOL concludes that: “There are three classifications of hazard severity: (a) “imminent danger”, That which would cause death or serious physical harm immediately; (b) “serious hazard”, that which could cause death or serious physical harm; and (c) “other”, that which would probably not cause death or serious physical harm.”

It further states that Rockford School District 205 has the right to appeal the validity of citations within 15 working days from Aug. 29. Violations that aren’t appealed must be corrected within the time period specified. If they aren’t corrected, they can result in further action by the IDOL.

A letter from Cheryl J. Neff, safety inspector for the department states “Based upon the results, the entire ceiling of the Gymnasium Hallway is considered contaminated with various fungi, and being a porous material, next to impossible to decontaminate. Therefore, removal is the safest and most effective option to eliminate/reduce the potential for exposure.

“Please note, improper removal can increase/spread the hazard to other areas where little or no contamination exists at present …Other ceiling tile throughout the school that show water damage should be considered suspect and replaced as soon as feasible. The high levels of humidity can also be a contributing factor to fungi growth throughout the school,” says the IDOL letter.

“There’s nothing to appeal,” said Jim Jennings, director of communications for the school district. “We had replaced the tiles.”

He said the district replaced 100 ceiling tiles in the gymnasium, even though most of them weren’t water-stained. “It was better to go the extra step and replace those,” Jennings said. In addition, he said that the district is in the process of replacing 400 water-stained ceiling tiles throughout the school, even though they might not necessarily be contaminated with mold. He said the district might continue to take similar measures in other schools. However, the district is starting with Guilford because Amanda and other students who report health problems think they are possibly linked to environmental conditions.

Molly Phalen, president of the Rockford Education Association, said concerns arose as to whether the district took the matter seriously.

“We wanted to make sure,” she said. “We are distributing that report to our members at Guilford. We have been in contact with the parents who filed the suit.”

She indicated that the organization procured information from union members in August to discern whether any had symptoms matching Amanda’s and found that several had.

“It was more than a couple—everything from headaches to respiratory concerns,” Phalen said.

Phalen said that in the union’s first internal newsletter, an article about the environmental quality issue will be discussed, and members from all schools are asked to submit concerns.

U.S. Magistrate P. Michael Mahoney ordered the school district to conduct tests following a federal lawsuit filed by the Blocks on behalf of their daughter.

The Blocks’ lawsuit alleges that the

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district violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Blocks allege adverse environmental conditions, such as carbon dioxide and moldy air, have mushroomed into Amanda’s numerous asthmatic attacks. Allegedly, she required ambulance trips only while attending school.

She remained homebound at various times during the school year. The Blocks affirm that she failed to receive proper steps to modify the 504 plan, created to meet the needs of students with medical conditions.

They say she hasn’t received cooperation from her teachers. Thus, her grades have dropped, they claim. The Blocks indicate that Amanda never ailed from such problems prior to attending Guilford. Block said that if the district had taken proper steps to prevent problems, the lawsuit wouldn’t have been filed.

Jennings said the accusations will be determined in court. School board attorney James Hess thinks the lawsuit is a “nuisance.” He said that mold spores are found everywhere, not just at Guilford.

The school hired HC Johnson Controls to

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check for mold. The company found two ceiling tiles with Stachybotrys in August but asserts the mold was new and inactive; therefore the district asserts, the mold failed to pose a health threat. The Blocks hired Clayton Group Services to conduct identical tests. The company, however, found four tiles that contained Stachybotrys. There were three tiles in the gym and one in the entrance/exit area.

Todd Schmidt, director of operations for the district, said ceiling tiles are checked regularly. “It’s an ongoing effort to check the mold in the ceiling tiles,” he said. “It’s an ongoing effort to rectify any mold situation. Anything that we’ve had that we were supposed to do, we’ve done.”

Block referred to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) and New York City Department of Public Health’s mold remediation steps.

They state: repair the source of water incursion; replace/decontaminate tiles and framing for tiles that are contaminated; and replace/decontaminate tiles within 24 to 48 hours after water has contaminated them.

“I don’t have a copy of what the EPA suggests,” Jennings said. He said that simply because the tiles contain water stains, they aren’t necessarily contaminated with black toxic mold.

In a school district press release, the district says it is in the process of replacing water-stained ceiling tiles, even though water stains don’t necessarily indicate mold or other airborne pathogens are present.

The district states that in the normal course of operations, it replaces damaged and stained tiles as part of regular maintenance. Jennings said that a building engineer and custodians maintain each school.

Also, in the fall of 2000, HC Johnson Controls conducted air quality tests that determined high levels of carbon dioxide existed. They ascertained that: vents are shut off due to overheating and noise; vent filters are “dirty” and keep air from flowing; air screens on outside vents are “dirty” and keep outside air from flowing in; vent outside air dampers aren’t working correctly; staff or students put items over or near the discharge or return of the vent, keeping the air from flowing in; and all exhaust fans were turned off.

The school thus far has had its maintenance staff repair some univents to proper working condition. The school has also examined intake screens, calibrated thermostats to accurately read room temperature and set exhaust fans operate in “AUTO” position.

The company indicated the tests were normal, the district states. In fact, some of the air quality tests in certain areas showed air quality in the school was better than outside, the district suggested.

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