Teachers' union says school may be contaminated School officials suspect a 'smear job' BALTIMORE CITY

April 13, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

The Baltimore Teachers Union hints at a cover-up.

City school officials suspect a smear job by the union.

Caught in the political cross fire is a teacher at Sarah M. Roach Elementary School who is recovering from a possible case of Legionnaire's disease, a potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

Her illness, and the school department's response, has produced the latest clash between BTU and education officials over Baltimore's controversial experiment in school privatization, known as Tesseract.

The teachers' union says that Sarah M. Roach Elementary, one of nine schools being operated by Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc., may be the site of Legionnaire's contamination.

School officials deny that, saying that tests have revealed no sign of Legionnaire's or other environmental hazards.

The city health department, meanwhile, has done its own investigation and found no evidence of environmental hazards at the school, or any communicable disease that would threaten staff or students.

"As far as I know, she did not have Legionnaire's," said city health commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson, of the sick teacher.

"The bottom line is, if she did have it, it didn't come from the school."

But the BTU isn't convinced, and is challenging the objectivity of the private consultant that tested the building at the behest of EAI's corporate partner, Johnson Controls World Services Inc.

"The feeling among the faculty is that something is wrong with the building, not necessarily Legionnaire's," said Linda Nusinov, a teacher at Sarah M. Roach and the building's union representative. "We're certain that there's a massive cover-up occurring."

The BTU's complaint was sparked by the case of a 39-year-old teacher who got sick with pneumonia in February and has been out of work for more than a month.

In a note dated April 5, the woman's doctor stated that her lab tests "were consistent with pneumonia caused by atypical organisms and consistent with Legionella pneumophila," the bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease.

The Legionella bacteria breed in warm, moist conditions, with outbreaks often traced to contaminated water or air-conditioning systems in large public buildings.

Last week, the BTU filed complaints with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency, calling for a thorough investigation.

The complaints assert that the teacher was diagnosed with Legionnaire's earlier this year. They say that staff members are worried that the pneumonia death of a school secretary earlier this year may actually have been due to Legionnaire's.

The BTU asks that the building's ventilation systems be independently evaluated for the organism that causes Legionnaire's, as well as for other disease-causing bacteria or fungi.

The union also asks for air and water tests to be done for the presence of any dangerous organisms.

Staff members distrust the objectivity of tests done by Johnson Controls' consultant, said Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the BTU.

"They just feel it won't be an accurate testing because it's Johnson Controls testing Johnson Controls," she said.

Ms. Prudente listed a number of health complaints at the building, among them: parents' claims that a dozen students have come down with pneumonia this year; chronic respiratory infections among the staff; and continued heating and ventilation problems at the school.

"Staff members need to know if it's Legionnaire's, so that they can take the necessary precautions," she said.

School and health officials are skeptical about the BTU's claims, however.

"There is no evidence, from a medical standpoint, that would confirm the allegations that were presented," said Joseph M. Lewandowski, chief of the health department's Bureau of Community and Industrial Hygiene.

He said the health department investigated virtually every sick day taken at the school and clusters of student absences, looking for evidence of any unusual infection.

Though he refused, for reasons of confidentiality, to discuss the sick teacher's case, Mr. Lewandowski said that any Legionnaire's infection would have to be reported to state health officials, and that no such report has been made.

In addition, an indoor air quality report done for Johnson Controls by the consultant, a division of Kemper Risk Management Services, revealed no evidence of unacceptable air quality or health hazard at the school.

"It would appear that there may be some other reason behind the allegations, and not the environmental and the medical reason that was alleged in the report," said Mr. Lewandowski.

The BTU's complaint should be seen against a backdrop of continued criticism about the Tesseract program, including a highly critical -- and unscientific -- "report card" issued last week, said Nat Harrington, school department spokesman.

"The only reaction I've gotten from high-level officials in the school system is . . . it seems to be more business as usual in their attempt to discredit the program," he said.

As of earlier this week, the school department had received oral assurances that a test of the school's water for Legionnaire's bacteria was negative, with a written report expected to follow.

Mr. Harrington also cited the consultant's report that found no evidence of environmental hazards at the school, and defended its objectivity.

"We don't have any reason to believe that this company would stake its reputation on anything other than reliable, accurate results that can be replicated," he said. "Based on what we've seen, we don't think there's any health hazard whatsoever in that building."

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