Tests seek cause of ailments Mount Airy pupils report symptoms

April 28, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Something in the air at Mount Airy Elementary School appears to be making children sick with such symptoms as extreme fatigue, headaches, trouble concentrating, sinus problems and rapid heart rate, said a school official and a parent.

"We've been unable to determine what the source of their ailment is," said Vernon Smith, director of school support services for Carroll County schools.

Testing will continue, with help from the Maryland Department of the Environment, he said. The school system called the department at the request of parents.

Whatever the mysterious culprit is, it appears to be strongest in the first- and second-grade classrooms, on the ground level near the water-tower side of the building, Mr. Smith said.

The school had an air-quality test done before Christmas, after a mother said her daughter's symptoms seemed directly caused by the school building.

"Everything has come back negative," Mr. Smith said. More specific tests are continuing, he said, with a monitoring device in the rooms that can test one at a time for individual pollutants, such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide.

In the meantime, the first-grade class that includes the girl has been moved into a portable classroom outside the building.

Her mother asked not to be identified, because she doesn't want her two daughters -- another has begun having symptoms -- to be labeled by other students as sickly.

After her first day in the portable classroom, the little girl noticed an improvement, her mother said, even though her parents hadn't told her they suspected the air in her old classroom.

"She literally came skipping down the street" after school Monday, her mother said. Previously, her daughter would be so fatigued at the end of the day she could barely walk from the bus to her door.

The mother had been asking school officials to investigate the building's air since last fall, when her daughter began having symptoms. Doctors ruled out allergies and other problems.

Her other young daughter began showing symptoms around Easter.

This month, more parents came forward reporting that their children were complaining of similar symptoms, said Mr. Smith. About six families have notified the school, he said.

The woman said she was in a unique situation to be one of the first parents to trace the problems to the building: She volunteered at the school three days a week, and felt some of the same symptoms herself.

In addition, she and other adults and students at the school have noticed a pungent odor that occurs suddenly and goes away just as quickly. On the days the odor is evident, the mother said, she and her daughter would feel worse.

"To me, it smelled like stagnant urine," the mother said. "Other people say it smells like sewer odor. It's very pungent, it's very brief, then it's gone."

Mr. Smith said parents have asked for a test that detects leaks in the sewer system, using smoke injected into the pipes.

Until a few weeks ago, the woman said, school officials were reluctant to test because they said no other families were complaining.

But in the past month, other parents have learned of their children's common mystery ailments and have realized the problem could be in the school building, she said.

The parents met last week with school officials to ask for more testing, the woman said.

She said some parents of third-graders have told her their children had many of the same symptoms when they were in first and second grade also, indicating the problem is not new.

Mr. Smith said this is not the first time a school has tried to track down a problem in a building that seemed to be making children sick, although it is the first for Mount Airy Elementary.

A few years ago, he said, children at Mechanicsville Elementary School seemed to be having allergic reactions to their classroom.

Officials uncovered the problem, literally, when they peeled away construction paper on a bulletin board and found colonies of mold and fungus growing there, he said.

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