Howard school tied to illness Teachers, children in Columbia building complain about air

October 08, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Children and staff at an aging Columbia elementary school say the building is making them sick, and Howard County health and safety officials went there yesterday looking for explanations.

Headaches, fatigue, stomach aches, blurred vision and an inability to concentrate are among the complaints by children, staff members and volunteers at Jeffers Hill Elementary.

Some parents say a lack of ventilation, combined with possible mold and asbestos contamination, have created unhealthy air -- and unhealthy working conditions.

Students there visit their health aide more than twice as often as the county average and more than students in any other county elementary school.

"We just want to know if something there is making them sick -- and, if it is, when something is going to be done to fix it," said Margie Wiedel, who has two children at the school and is active on the air quality issue.

"I go back and forth between feeling like I'm being an overreactive parent to wondering, 'Am I doing my kids a disservice every day by letting them go in there and come home with headaches?' " she said.

School Principal Ruth Heath said health complaints have trickled in during the four years she has been at the 23-year-old school but have become very serious since the start of this school year.

Last night, the county school board approved a capital budget that includes money for renovations on the building.

But the work is dependent on county government approval and state funding. In any event, the work wouldn't be completed soon enough to help students this school year.

Common to aging schools

The complaints echo those heard in Baltimore County -- and across the country -- as the air circulation systems in aging schools, many almost totally dependent on artificial ventilation systems, begin to create air quality problems.

In the past 18 months, three Baltimore County schools were shut down for several days because of similar environmental problems.

As of February, more than 1,600 children there had missed days or weeks of classes because of illnesses and school closings due to the problems.

Increasingly, as school systems such as Howard's struggle to keep pace with mushrooming enrollment, available money is funneled for expansions and new construction to create more classrooms.

In the process, such key issues as air quality often take a back seat, said John Geuvin, who handles school air quality issues for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Of the problems at Jeffers Hill, Geuvin said: "This totally, definitely fits into the pattern of my work. It has all the classic issues.

"You see this all over the country as school buildings get older."

On average last year, each of Jeffers Hill's roughly 428 students visited the health room 7.6 times for acute concerns -- conditions that are not continuing or pre-existing, according to school statistics.

In county elementary schools as a whole, that rate was 2.9 visits per student.

Pupils there reported the highest rate of health room visits of any public elementary school in Howard County. The next highest, in fTC descending order, were Bryant Woods, Running Brook and Thunder Hill elementaries.

Voice of dissent

But Carol Dunlavey, head of the health office for Howard County schools, doesn't give much weight to parents' feelings that the statistics reflect air quality problems: "Not a lot," she said. "I doubt it."

"There have been similar situations at other schools, and sometimes you can point to environmental concerns, but that's usually not the problem," said Dunlavey, one of the officials who visited the school yesterday.

"I think there are a variety of things, not just one thing, going on there."

Heath said she suffers allergies and gets headaches "a lot" while in the building.

But she and schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey have refused to connect the health problems with the condition of the building, which has never had a major renovation.

"We'll do whatever is necessary," Hickey said. "We will check things out and decide what, if anything, needs to be done. ...

"Obviously, air quality in a building can contribute to the health of the occupants."

Frequent service calls

School officials do acknowledge that the school -- which has few windows -- is often overheated and ventilation is poor. Uncomfortably hot, stuffy conditions often result, according to a school safety official who inspected the school in May after a parent complained.

Maintenance crews are called out to service the heating and air-conditioning systems at least once a week, Heath said.

Yesterday, health and safety officials mapped out a plan to review health room logs and investigate the frequent health room visits.

Results of the inquiry won't be available for at least a month, said Ron A. Miller, head of the safety office for county schools.

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