Bacteria suspected in school's ills Repiratory woes plague classroom

June 09, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Some common bacteria seem to be getting along famously in Room 144 at Mount Airy Elementary School.

And they may be the reason some first-graders and their teacher were not thriving as well in the same room, health and school officials say.

Officials made their first breakthrough late last week in their seven-month search to determine what is causing some first- and second-graders to suffer from congested sinuses, scratchy throats and other respiratory irritations.

The most recent air test results show that the "room bacteria concentration was six times higher than outdoors," says a report to Carroll County Schools from i-TEM Ltd. of Frederick, a company hired by the school system to test the school room's air quality.

"If there's good news at all, we do have something to look more closely at now," said Vernon Smith, director of school support services.

He said the school system will clean the carpet, remove mulch beds outside the classroom window and cover the exposed earth in a stairwell crawl space.

Those are the most likely breeding grounds for the bacteria, the report says.

Shirin de Silva, a physician with the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the bacteria could be the culprits but that they also could be just one factor irritating the students and teacher.

Either way, she said, it is worth the effort to find the source and bring the bacteria level back to normal. "It is encouraging in that [the bacteria level] probably is contributing to some of the symptoms the kids are having," she said. "Before, they were pursuing chemical aspects instead of biological ones, so it is helpful that this narrows the field."

Dr. de Silva also has asked the school to get more parents to return a survey handed out to 280 students. Of those, 113 were returned.

Mr. Smith said he will meet with parent volunteers from the school, who will call parents who did not return the survey and perhaps fill it out for them over the phone.

The school had previously been tested for several chemicals, such as methane, hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide, but none was found in unusual amounts, Mr. Smith said.

Symptoms include fatigue

Also, a smoke test to detect leaks in the sewer system showed none for that part of the school, although it revealed a few minor leaks elsewhere in the building that are easily corrected, he said.

The first-grade student and teacher who suffered the most severe symptoms have been better since that class switched places with the music room, Dr. de Silva said. Their symptoms included fatigue and trouble concentrating, which could be effects of the constant sinus and respiratory irritation.

The first-graders now are in a portable classroom separate from the rest of the building, and Room 144 serves as the music room.

Dr. de Silva said the most likely source of the bacteria is the landscaped mulch beds just outside the room. The windows are very close to the ground and the bacteria might be getting in through them, she said.

Another possible source is the carpet, according to the report from i-TEM, but Dr. de Silva said the carpet doesn't seem old enough to be a good breeding ground for bacteria or new enough to still be releasing large quantities of manufacturing chemicals such as formaldehyde, which usually dissipate within three years. The carpet was installed in 1987.

"It wouldn't hurt" to steam-clean the carpet, Dr. de Silva said. "Steam-cleaning a carpet is something cheap and easy for the school to do," she said.

Another possible source for the bacteria is a crawl space under a nearby stairwell, which turned out to have bare earth beneath it, Mr. Smith said. The school maintenance staff will cover the ground, he said.

The report from i-TEM reads, "Although Bacillus sp. are generally harmless inhabitants of the environment, the fact that indoor levels are so much greater than outdoor levels indicates that bTC there is an indoor source of amplification," such as the carpet or crawl space.

Allergies ruled out

Over the fall and winter, school officials thought the problem might be isolated to one first-grade girl who became extremely fatigued and developed respiratory problems only after being in the building several hours.

But doctors ruled out allergies and school anxieties, and in April, other parents began to question whether their children's respiratory problems might be linked to the building.

They urged the school to conduct the parent survey.

Dr. de Silva said she is considering conducting another survey in September, when students arrive for the new school year and have not been exposed much to the school recently, and another a few months later to determine whether the school environment might have an effect on their health.

If the bacteria are the cause, they are acting as irritants the way an allergen might, Dr. de Silva said.

The bacteria do not seem to be acting as infectious agents, she said, probably because the children's immune systems can fight them off.

If they were infected, she said, the children would probably also have fevers and would not feel better after only a day or two out of the building.

But the high level of bacteria can still irritate sinuses, eyes and lungs without infecting them, she said.

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