Mount Airy school survey documents illnesses Cause of problems under investigation

May 10, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

A survey shows that one-third to one-half of the first- and second-graders at Mount Airy Elementary School might be getting sick from a problem in the building.

The survey was done by Carroll County school officials with help from parent volunteers, who tabulated results, said Vernon Smith, director of school support services.

Of the 113 children whose parents were surveyed, 47 first-graders and 17 second-graders reported one or more symptoms such as extreme fatigue, headaches, eye irritation, nasal congestion and coughing.

One child who had most of those symptoms also developed heart palpitations one day.

It is not clear from the summary released by Mr. Smith which of the 27 symptoms listed might be linked to the school. Mr. Smith said he was still reviewing the results himself, but understood them to show that about 35 percent of the students have common symptoms such as nasal congestion, throat irritation and coughing.

Some parents didn't respond to all questions.

For example, a question asking whether symptoms improve when the child leaves the building had 20 parents saying yes, 13 saying no and 71 giving no response.

But school officials say they aren't certain yet whether the problem is in the building's air because they haven't found any contaminants.

"There are enough cases where individuals have similar symptoms that any reasonable person would believe there's a problem," Mr. Smith said. "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't [in the building]."

Several parents, however, are convinced it is.

The parents reached so far all have asked not to be identified because they don't want their children labeled as sickly.

One mother reported to school officials last fall that she felt the problem was in the building, after allergy and other tests ruled out other causes.

Her daughter's fatigue, headaches and sinus problems would disappear by Monday mornings but come back by the afternoon and worsen through Friday, she said.

The girl's first-grade class moved last month into a portable room outside the building. The mother said the symptoms now appear only when her daughter has to go into the main building.

Mr. Smith said the school doesn't have enough space to move all first- and second-graders out of the building.

"Personally, I think that at this point it would be an overreaction," Mr. Smith said. "We need to work to discover what the problem is and resolve it."

School officials are continuing to run tests on the air inside the school. The latest was a "smoke test" Saturday, in which a plumber injected colored smoke into the sewer line, then looked for colored puffs that might indicate a leak.

Minor leaks were detected in the kitchen and a boys' restroom, Mr. Smith said, and those can be repaired easily. He said nothing was found in the section of the school where children have been getting sick.

In a first-grade classroom, a device continues to test the air for specific contaminants, Mr. Smith said. He said the device can be set for one contaminant at a time.

"I would love to find something," Mr. Smith said. "We would then have something to correct. At this point, we have nothing to correct."

He said the device might be moved to a windowless room to see if the results are any different.

A physician from the Maryland Department of the Environment will review the questionnaire results, Mr. Smith said. Other air-quality experts from state and local agencies are assisting and attended a meeting last week with parents, he said.

Mr. Smith said the school system has had air-quality problems before, for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes, serendipity plays the biggest role in discovery, he said.

A few years ago, a sewer gas odor permeated Liberty High School on a weekly basis, although no one was getting sick, he said.

After two years of testing and probing, "it was resolved by a fluke," Mr. Smith said.

One of his assistants, Ronald Furbay, happened to be on the roof one day in a small "penthouse" that held the air-conditioning equipment.

When a door slammed shut behind him, he realized there was an air flow drawing gases back into the school from a sewer trap that had gone dry, Mr. Smith said.

Eliminating the air flow was rather simple, he said: Water was put back into the trap.

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