Tests set on air quality at school Howard girl treated for breathing woes

October 11, 1997|By Erin Texeira and Jill Hudson | Erin Texeira and Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Howard County school officials announced late yesterday that they will order air-quality tests at a Columbia school that parents fear has unsafe air.

The announcement came as word spread that a fourth-grader at Jeffers Hill Elementary School had been takento a the emergency room at Howard County General Hospital with breathing problems that a relative said were caused by contaminated school air. The child, Teona Joyner, 9, underwent hospital tests yesterday.

Officials at the hospital and at the county Department of Education said no connection had been found between school air and the child's illness, but about 20 parents, teachers and PTA officers gathered outside the school in east Columbia about 3 p.m. and questioned school officials.

"Do you have complete confidence that that building is safe?" asked a parent, pointing to the school.

"Yes, I have complete confidence -- in my heart and in my head," said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent. "Your concerns are real. We're just looking for a correlation."

"Would you put your kids in here?" asked another parent.

"Yes," he said.

Cousin agreed to hire an expert from outside the school system to test the air quality in the school.

At least twice -- most recently this week -- school officials have measured the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide at the school, said Jeff Klenk, a school safety official. All were at safe levels, he said.

Parents said yesterday that they wanted assurances that further, more extensive tests will be conducted by impartial experts.

"We would request that you bring in people who are not your usual people," said Debra Stanley, the PTA president. "They can't be under contract with the [Department of Education.] It won't work if it's someone under contract."

Cousin said, "We want to make this the very best place for kids to come. We wouldn't want to put kids in a building that is unhealthy or unsafe."

Parents of at least six students said they planned to withdraw their children, at least until they are sure the school is safe.

"I think this is ridiculous," said Sue Davis, Teona's aunt. "It's getting a little out of hand. I can't send them to school knowing their lives are in danger," she said of her son, Teona and a nephew she cares for. All attend Jeffers Hill.

Teona was sent home from the emergency room with medication jTC about 2 p.m. but was readmitted about an hour later when she began coughing uncontrollably and had trouble breathing, Davis said.

"This is only one kid out of 400-some children in the school," said school spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "The good majority are just fine."

Yesterday afternoon, another parent said she would take her 8-year-old son to the hospital after he also developed wheezing and severe coughing at school.

Some parents blamed the latest problems at Jeffers Hill on recently reopened ventilation systems in two parts of the building, including the area where Teona's class meets.

The systems had not worked for some time but were repaired and began operating again Wednesday, school officials said.

The 23-year-old school's heating and air conditioning systems -- which, by all accounts, are antiquated and require almost daily repairs -- are the focus of many parents' concerns. They say overheating and poor ventilation at the school, which has no windows, might be linked to chronic health complaints among those who work and attend classes there.

For years, there have been reports of headaches, stomachaches, problems with concentration and vision, and other ailments at the school. The concerns have increased this school year, school officials said.

Repairs at the school this week -- after reports in The Sun Wednesday about parents' concerns -- included replacing water-stained and moldy ceiling tiles and servicing the ventilation systems, school officials said.

Whatever the new tests show, school officials will not investigate whether Teona's health problems yesterday were related to air quality at Jeffers Hill unless the child's family asks them to do so, Caplan said.

"As far as diagnosing the problem that is believed to have happened, that's a personal matter," said Klenk. "If there is believed to be a correlation, our office would get involved. I would still like to believe there is no correlation with this."

Teona, who had had no problems Thursday night or yesterday before school, and has never suffered from asthma or other respiratory problems, said she was in her first class of the day about 8: 30 a.m. when she she began to struggle to breathe.

Her teacher told her to go to the health office.

"I was kind of scared," said Teona, coughing in the school parking lot after being released from her first hospital visit yesterday afternoon.

"At first I didn't know what was going on," she said. "I was coughing and all this stuff. My friend said you're wheezing. I was crying and crying. I couldn't get any air."

John Walker, a spokesman for Howard County General Hospital, reported that Teona's doctor said she "has no concern that the child's medical condition is a result of an environmental hazard." Walker would not elaborate but said Teona would undergo unspecified tests.

The results of the tests were not available last night.

Davis said the doctor, who could not be reached for comment, told her that something "airborne" had made Teona sick.

"When I asked [the doctor] if it came from the air in the school," Davis said, "she said, 'Yes.' "

"Nobody [in my family] is going back to the school until something is done," Davis said.

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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