At Carroll Springs, a pungent puzzle School hopes tests of tap water trace alcohol odor

February 11, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Everyone at the Carroll Springs School is hoping that tomorrow brings an answer -- instead of more questions -- about what makes the hot tap water in Rooms 12 and 9 smell like rubbing alcohol.

"Right now, it's a big puzzle," said Robin Farinholt, principal of the county's only school devoted to special education, where parents and staff have lingering concerns about what is causing the smell, and whether it may affect the already vulnerable students in their care.

Officials at the Westminster school hired a private lab to test the water beginning Jan. 29. They could have some results by tomorrow from Friday's testing to determine whether the smell is related to the solar-heating system used to warm the school's therapy swimming pool.

Until they determine what caused the smell and how to stop it, the school will continue to use water delivered daily for drinking and washing, said Vernon Smith, director of school support services.

The school has not determined why the smell comes specifically from Rooms 9 and 12. As a precaution, all faucets and drinking fountains in the school were turned off Jan. 26., three days after the odor was first detected.

"If we continue to get negative results, we're going to keep plugging away and look for something else," Mr. Smith said. "I'm not going to be comfortable saying we're going to resume the use of water if it still smells."

Meanwhile, Ms. Farinholt said, student and staff attendance has not changed, and no students appear to be harmed. However, teachers and assistants in the affected rooms said they wonder if their increasing headaches, stuffy noses and, in one case, a nose bleed might be linked to the unknown odor instead of

colds.

Dependence on water

Of all the schools in the county, Carroll Springs has a unique dependence on water. Most of the students have physical conditions requiring diapers and feeding tubes, which are washed with hot water.

"We're always washing our hands," said Kathy Matuszak, who has a foster daughter in the classroom where the smell was detected and who is a substitute teacher at the school.

Ms. Matuszak, who also is a registered nurse, has some concerns about whether the water may have harmed students or staff, but said she believes the school is doing everything it can to find the problem and fix it.

But Tina Dorsch, a parent who is an instructional assistant in Room 12, isn't pleased with the school staff's response. She was among the first to detect the alcohol odor on Jan. 23 in the room where she works.

The odor was faint at first, but grew so strong that people could smell it in the hallway. Many described it as if someone had spilled a bottle of rubbing alcohol. The alcohol was especially noticeable because it is so rare -- teachers and even the nurse never use alcohol in classrooms for fear a child might accidentally drink it.

The school contacted Westminster officials, concerned that it was coming from the public water supply.

Meanwhile, there was not much alarm, staff said. They continued to use the water, thinking the problem might be a routine flushing by the city, or related to the flooding and storms that week.

City officials drew samples two days later. By Jan. 26 they determined that the problem was not in the public supply, and directed school officials to test their building.

Samples at the school

School and health department officials decided they should stop using the school water by that afternoon. Technicians from Water Testing Laboratories of Maryland Inc. drew samples Jan. 29 from the school. By then, the classrooms and restrooms had hand-washing stations set up with thermal jugs of water with a spigot at the bottom, antibacterial soap and antiseptic towelettes.

Ms. Dorsch and other teachers and assistants were chagrined that for seven days before the lab drew samples, the school building staff ran the faucets each night to flush the water system.

Mr. Smith said flushing the system -- which involves turning on all the faucets -- is common practice, recommended by the city's water department whenever there might be a contaminant. The purpose is to clean it out of the system, he said.

But Mr. Smith said the smell was there when the lab first came to take water samples Jan. 29, and still there as recently as %J Thursday night,when the water was run during an information meeting for parents and staff.

"I could smell it" Thursday night, he said, although it wasn't so concentrated as before.

Health concerns spread

In addition to adapting to the inconvenience of no running water, staff members also are dealing with anxiety over their health and that of their students.

On Friday, Ms. Farinholt asked a counselor from the employee assistance program to be available at the school for staff to talk with, and many took the opportunity.

Although no one uses hot water for drinking, they do use it routinely for flushing out feeding tubes and bags that put formula into the stomachs of some students.

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