Jeffers Hill contaminants are found Air quality tests find bacteria, spores, mites at school

'Not a health hazard'

Primary risk is for allergies, consultant says

December 10, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Bacteria, fungal spores and dust mites that can trigger allergies exist in higher-than-normal levels in some parts of Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary School, according to results of an air quality study released last night.

Dirty carpets and ventilation ducts likely are causing the contamination, according to the report from Aerosol Monitoring & Analysis, Inc., a Hanover-based environmental consulting firm.

"These are low to medium conditions, and the primary risks are that of allergies," said Joseph Coco of Aerosol Monitoring. "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, the school comes in at about a 3 or 4.

"The situation is not a health hazard, and it is not a dangerous situation by any means," he said. "But it should be addressed in an expeditious manner."

None of the fungi or bacteria were found to be toxic, Coco said.

In conducting the tests, Coco said, Aerosol Monitoring took into consideration that children usually are more susceptible to environmental hazards than adults.

The report was released at a meeting last night at Jeffers Hill Elementary.

At the meeting, Howard County school officials and an environmental consultant from the Johns Hopkins University spoke to some 30 parents and children, who are concerned that poor air quality in the school building may be causing students and staff to become ill.

"This is pretty much what I expected," said Debbie Stanley, PTA president at the school. "I'm not surprised that they found something. They kept coming back to do more tests so that told us something all along."

Aerosol Monitoring's testers, who have been combing the school for eight weeks, found dust mites at what the report calls a "high-risk" level in the school's music room; above-normal levels of fungi in four classroom areas, including the kindergarten area; and Carpet dust was higher-than-normal in four areas.

Air ducts in the ventilation system contained high levels of fungal spores, Coco said. In some areas, testers found high readings of fungal spores when the air system was switched on each day. But the levels decreased after the system had been operating for some time, he said.

The contamination can contribute to allergy symptoms, he said.

Students and staff at the school have complained of headaches, fatigue, listlessness and blurred vision.

Of the heating and ventilation systems, Coco said, "We suspect these are causing symptoms. All the data together suggest that these systems were of some concern."

Howard County school officials admit that the ventilation system at the 23-year-old school, which has never been renovated, is antiquated and in need of repair.

"It doesn't work," said Sydney Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations at Howard County schools.

School carpets should be steam cleaned, ventilation systems cleaned according to industry standards and air ducts flushed, sanitized and regularly maintained, Aerosol Monitoring's report recommended.

"Teachers hold classes while the children are sitting on the floors -- is there anything being done to address that now?" Mel Schwartz, who has two daughters who suffer allergies at Jeffers Hill, asked school officials at the meeting.

Maintenance crews are scheduled to clean air ducts and school carpets over the holiday recess, Cousin said. No cleaning will be done while students are in the building and relocating them so that work can be done immediately is not an option, he said.

The concerns at Jeffers Hill surfaced in October after some students and staff members began to suspect that poor air quality may be causing their chronic health problems.

At that time, a school system official reported that Jeffers Hill students visited the health room for acute concerns more than twice as often as county elementary students as a whole -- 7.6 vs. 2.9 times per student.

But in recent weeks, officials have retracted those findings, saying school health room data were not reliably gathered.

The state recently approved its portion of funding for the first phase of a $2.6 million renovation at Jeffers Hill that will replace the ventilation system and carpets. The remaining funds will likely be included in the county's capital budget early next year, Cousin said at last night's meeting.

The renovation plans are being altered so that work on areas of the school building where tests showed more problems will be done first, he said.

Clifford S. Mitchell, an occupational and environmental physician with the Johns Hopkins School of Environmental Health Sciences, said last night the contamination levels found at Jeffers Hill are not alarming.

"This is basically no different from walking around outside and in your houses," he said. "Basically, these are things you inhale on a daily basis."

But some parents remain concerned.

"It's OK to say everything is within limits but the kids are getting sick," said Carolyn Fredericks. "That has not been resolved."

Said Angela Henry, whose son, a fourth-grader, complains of headaches and sore throats: "The bottom line is that they are still not listening to parents. I'm wondering if the test results are truly accurate. There would be several lawsuits that would bring the county down if they were found liable for these illnesses."

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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