Parents get help from first lady EPA follows up letter on school air

June 20, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

The White House has caught a whiff of the air testing going on at Mount Airy Elementary School, and it instructed federal experts to look into a letter that one mother wrote to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

State and local environmental health officials are working with Carroll County schools to test the air and survey first- and second-graders at the school.

They are trying to determine whether something in the building is causing children to suffer symptoms ranging from extreme fatigue and heart palpitations to chronic sinus congestion.

Parent Christine Bingaman said bringing in federal experts can only help. She believes it was her letter last February to Mrs. Clinton that prompted an Environmental Protection Agency specialist to call her at home last week with a suggestion for getting further federal help.

Mrs. Bingaman also has written to Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes.

She received responses that they will keep abreast of the investigation.

Information about Mount Airy Elementary arrived at the EPA regional office in a White House folder, said Fran Dougherty, an indoor air-quality expert at that office in Philadelphia.

Mr. Dougherty called Mrs. Bingaman to suggest that she write to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which was set up by Congress to investigate workers' complaints about indoor air quality.

On Thursday, Mrs. Bingaman sent her request -- co-signed by parents from three other families --and background information on the children's symptoms and testing done so far, to NIOSH.

"The packet is 2 inches thick," Mrs. Bingaman said.

Mr. Dougherty said that the EPA would not have any further role, except to direct the parents to NIOSH.

Mrs. Bingaman said she asked NIOSH to make an exception to its rule of investigating complaints only from employees, unions or employers.

"They have total expertise in air quality," Mrs. Bingaman said. "I'm hoping they will be able to bring together all the expertise -- chemical analysis, bacterial analysis and structural. Right now, we have individuals with very narrow experience."

NIOSH regulations specify that the agency will investigate only workplaces, said Julie Tisdale, a public affairs specialist for the Atlanta-based agency.

"When we go into a school [to test air and interview employees], they don't even interview the children," Ms. Tisdale said.

She said if the Mount Airy parents do send the request, NIOSH officials may simply refer them back to state health and environmental officials.

Those state and local agencies are already working on the case at the request of the parents and school administration.

Charles Zeleski, the county Health Department's assistant director of environmental health, said NIOSH regulations allow for some exceptions, such as the Mount Airy parents are requesting.

After several tests of air in the school, the only clue to the causes of the illnesses so far is a high level of bacteria in one first-grade classroom.

The teacher who was in that room and Mrs. Bingaman's twin daughters have reported the most severe symptoms, including fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

Health officials are conducting a second survey to determine whether other children share those symptoms.

Mrs. Bingaman had been trying to persuade school administrators to undertake extensive air testing since November, after a doctor ruled out allergies or other causes for her daughter's symptoms.

A one-day air-quality test in December yielded nothing unusual, however, and attendance rates at the school were not below average, officials said.

Mrs. Bingaman and other parents have said their children attended school despite the symptoms.

The schools did not begin aggressive testing until several parents complained together in April. They wondered whether their children's sinus problems, throat irritations and other health problems might be linked to the school building.

Mrs. Bingaman's daughter's symptoms stopped as soon as she and her class moved into a portable building in late April. However, the girl's twin sister, who still attends classes in the main building, began to develop symptoms. Since then, Mrs. Bingaman and her husband have been teaching the girls at home. She said the girls have been healthy and will attend a private school next year.

Mrs. Bingaman said she was surprised to get the call from the EPA, but heartened to know her letters to political leaders prompted action.

Carrie Deitzel, a spokeswoman for the EPA office, said the agency always responds to citizen requests. When those requests are forwarded by elected officials or the White House, EPA workers respond within 10 days.

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