Air In Jacobsville School Still Worries Some Parents Health Risks Feared Despite Assurances From County Officials

November 16, 1990|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

Despite assurances from the county that microbes discovered in the air at Jacobsville Elementary pose no risk to students, some parents remain convinced that something is wrong.

Jacobsville PTA president Jane Reidy, who says she has received between 60 and 100 calls per week from concerned parents since September, doesn't know what to tell people about the air quality. County health officials say there is no danger, even while she is under doctor's orders to stay away from the school after suffering a severe allergy attack last month.

"The parents are afraid that something is wrong and nobody is telling them the whole story," Reidy explained in a hoarse voice that she says she has had since working in the school during a fund-raiser last month. "I'm not a scientist, I don't know how to read the reports. All I do know is more and more kids are sick and getting rashes."

Principal Wayne Miller said questions about air quality began after a leaking roof allowed molds to develop in ceiling tiles throughout the school.

The roof is under repair now. But many parents, noticing a musty aroma in the multipurpose cafeteria and gym room, are concerned the work might have aggravated the problem by stirring up the molds.

Two independent studies, the second of which was released Wednesday, both detected elevated levels of five different molds and bacteria known to cause allergies or diseases in humans.

The environmental consulting firm OMC Inc. reported that the micro-organisms they found are all normal but may pose problems for people vulnerable to allergies.

Those studies, along with several circulating stories about students, teachers and parents suffering from severe allergic reactions and infections, have many parents concerned the school is unhealthy.

But county health officer Dr. Katherine Farrell said the studies are inconclusive, and that the stories about allergies are being blown out of proportion.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't worry about it," said Farrell, an air quality specialist. "But there is considerable doubt as to whether anything is unusual about the air in Jacobsville as compared to other elementary schools."

Farrell said the results showing as many as 7.9 microbes per cubic foot of air are "several orders of magnitude" less than what she has seen in so-called "sick buildings." She said no standard levels for elementary schools exist for comparison.

Farrell has recommended that walls and floors be sterilized and cleaned with a powerful vacuum routinely until the roof is finished late in December. After that, another air study will be taken.

Linda Furrow, whose son had to be hospitalized during a severe asthma attack after school Sept. 25, accused Farrell and the rest of the county of putting the problem off to save money.

Two days in a row, she said, her son got off the school bus "gasping for breath, his eyes rolling up in his head." The second day, she said, he was "chalk-colored," so she took him to the hospital.

David's doctor, Kee Park, recommended an air purifier be installed in his classroom as a precautionary measure, but said he wasn't certain what caused the reactions.

"It's hard to prove, but the school may be a factor. He's had asthma before," Park said, adding that two of the microbes discovered at Jacobsville "can be very dangerous to kids with allergies."

One teacher, who asked not to be named, said she and several of her students had suffered from urinary tract infections during September, which she considered "unusual."

"The county says calm down, calm down, there's no more bacteria than the average home, but I say the average home must not be as clean as mine," the teacher said.

Urinary tract infections, upper respiratory infections and pneumonia are listed as the symptoms for one of the bacteria discovered in the second study of the air at the school.

The health department's Farrell said anecdotal evidence of allergies and infections is unscientific and probably has more to do with the people in the school than the building itself.

Jacobsville actually reported a below-average 2.9 percent absentee rate during September, though that figure doesn't include cases where students were sent home early.

The independent Jacobsville Parent-Teacher Organization, uncertain over how to handle the situation, voted to join the county-wide PTA Tuesday to take advantage of its expertise.

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