Renovation a headache for many at Hereford Chemicals used in renovation said to sicken staff, pupils.

September 16, 1991|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Evening Sun Staff

On a sunny, breezy day, most of the fumes that waft through the hallways and classrooms at Hereford High have disappeared by early afternoon.

But 15-year-old junior Amy Stika says she still has a headache.

"I have a hard time concentrating on my homework," says the dark-haired student, sitting in a stairwell near an open door at the school in northern Baltimore County.

"And my sister and all my friends . . . they've all had really bad headaches. It starts right below your eyes and gets worse."

Stika is one of many students and teachers unhappy with the problems Hereford High's $14 million renovation is causing in the second year of the four-year project.

Fumes from roofing tar and the chemical solvent used to remove asbestos tile and adhesive from the building's floors this summer are causing health problems, both students and teachers say. ++ Headaches, sore throats, dizzy spells and nausea are all cited as effects of breathing the fumes.

County and school officials say they have no reason yet to think the school population is at any risk. But students and teachers are concerned that whatever's giving them headaches now may result in something more serious later.

Some students have even taken to wearing gas or surgical masks to school, a sign of protest, says Traci Bentz, 17.

"I know there are toxins in the air," says Bentz, a senior. "I'm just worried about the long-term effects. Twenty years from now, I don't want to learn that I can't have children because of the toxins in the air."

William J. Schmalzer, a biology teacher, says he isn't worried for himself, but "I'm concerned of what we're doing to the 13-, 14- and 15-year-old kids . . . what's going to happen to them?"

Ray Gross, the principal of Hereford, says at least 39 teachers have reported to the school nurse complaining of headaches, burning eyes or throats since school started. He says that fewer than 10 students have sought care at school.

"But I can't say [those symptoms] are directly related to asbestos abatement or the roofing project," Gross says.

Education officials confirm that at least two teachers have temporarily left Hereford because of the fumes, though both plan to return when the school's new portable classrooms are delivered in October. The teachers were so severely affected by the fumes that they will receive workmen's compensation until they are able to reassume their duties.

One teacher, who is pregnant, decided not to return to Hereford on the advice of her doctor. Officials are exploring the possibility of transferring her to another school, teachers say.

But "if it's bad for her fetus, then how can it be healthy for anybody to breathe that stuff?" asks Gina Vachino, 16, a Hereford junior.

That's what the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency is trying to determine, said Frank Grieb, in charge of safety and security for county schools.

MOSH officials have spent several days at the school in an effort to determine whether the levels of toxins in the air are within permissible guidelines. Hereford officials are awaiting results from those tests.

But fumes aren't the only problem.

Teachers say the roofing work has caused small pieces of the school's ceiling to fall into classrooms, globs of hot tar to fall through the ceiling in front of the library, and a fluorescent light to crash to the floor of a classroom. A student had been sitting under the light minutes before it came crashing down.

"We have all these close calls . . ." says Dave Clements, a social studies teacher and chairman of Hereford's faculty council. "But in each case, the [school] board is saying, 'Well, nothing happened, so I guess we're OK.'

"Kids have to pass through a war zone [of construction] to get to a relocatable [portable classroom], which presents a problem."

And the cafeteria has been relocated to the old gym, where tiles hang from the ceiling and students aren't permitted inside if work is being done to that area of the roof, Clements says.

"Obviously, the cafeteria workers are a bit apprehensive about working in there when it's not safe for kids," he adds.

Gross and school officials say they are doing everything possible to alleviate the problems caused by the construction, acknowledging that itdoesn't allow for the best learning environment.

Fans have been placed in classrooms that are under, or near, areas where tar is being used. Schools windows and doors are left open to help air circulate.

The report from the county, Gross says, will give him a better idea of the school's next course of action.

Though major renovations have taken place at other county schools, Hereford is unique because "this is the first time in recent memory that we're completely remodeling a school while students and teachers are in the building," says school system spokesman Richard E. Bavaria.

In the case of Hereford, Bavaria says, "there are no other schools that far north in the county that can accommodate those students . . . we certainly knew it would not be easy. There just are no other high schools in that area."

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