School floor tile work leaves irritating odor Smell poses no danger, officials say

source traced to chemical used

April 09, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

An irritating odor is lingering in several areas of Swansfield Elementary School this week, likely because of trace chemicals left behind by maintenance work done during spring break, Howard County school officials said.

The odor poses no danger to students, teachers or staff, officials said, but some parents say they're concerned and at least a couple of families have pulled their children from the west Columbia elementary this week.

"Primarily, it's just an annoying odor," said Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin. "The health and safety of students and teachers is our top priority, and if we thought they were in any danger, we would have closed the school."

Still, the odor left some students, teachers and parents complaining Monday about headaches and irritated eyes, throats and lungs.

"One little girl and one little boy seemed to be bothered a little bit, so I took them to the health room for a little while," said kindergarten teacher Jacqueline LaGrange. "I have some allergies, too, so my throat was bothered. But I took some lozenges and seemed to get better."

The odor -- which some liken to a detergent and others say smells like a pesticide -- was far less noticeable yesterday after Swansfield was scrubbed and aired out Monday night and early yesterday.

"There's an odor, and it's pretty unpleasant, but at least it's getting better," said Karen Ganjon, principal of the 660-pupil school. "The school system is being incredibly supportive in terms of trying to ensure the safety of students and faculty."

The odor is believed to be caused by a nontoxic chemical that seeped into walls and floor cracks after asbestos floor tiles were removed last week from the front hallway, administrative offices, gifted-and-talented resource room and kindergarten rooms.

Air quality tests taken before, during and after the work show that the asbestos was removed safely, without leaving any airborne fibers, said Ronald Miller, the school system's safety and insurance specialist.

But Asbestos Specialists Inc., which removed the tiles, also used a chemical called "No Odor Mastic Remover" to clean the adhesive from the cement floor.

School officials believe the chemical may have seeped into the walls, in part because baseboards were removed to make it easier to lift off the tiles.

"No Odor Mastic Remover -- the name is kind of ironic, isn't it?" Miller said.

Material safety data sheets indicate the chemical is nontoxic but may be irritating to eyes, throat and lungs.

Miller described Asbestos Specialists as one of the top asbestos removal companies in Maryland and said the firm followed procedures laid out by the school system.

The company also removed asbestos tiles from Dunloggin Middle School during spring break using the same chemicals, and no odor was left there, Cousin said.

The difference may be that Dunloggin's walls next to the tiles are metal while Swansfield's walls have a core of drywall and corkboard that seems to have absorbed the chemicals, Cousin said.

Yesterday, as school officials made repeated visits to Swansfield to check on the odor, some parents said they were concerned.

"When your nose smells something so bad, it seems to be telling you that you should worry, even though you're being told that it's not toxic," said Anne Rogers, first vice president of the school PTA.

Rogers said she spent several hours volunteering in Swansfield's office Monday and left with a "splitting headache," but was reassured when she called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday and learned that the chemical is not hazardous.

A few families kept their children home yesterday, in part because the children have severe asthma problems, Ganjon said.

School officials said they believe the smell will be gone soon.

The asbestos tiles were removed to provide a head start on planned renovations. The $2.2 million renovation to Swansfield, which opened in 1972, is to replace the heating and ventilation system, add walls to some classrooms and do other work.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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