Parents, teachers air concerns about mold

Six county schools were cleaned up this summer

September 18, 2005|By Katrina Altersitz | Katrina Altersitz,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

When Beth Murphy moved back to Maryland, she thought she had left behind her mold-fighting days in the now-clean elementary school at her old neighborhood in Weston, Fla. Then she walked into Oak Hill Elementary in Severna Park, and her nose, eyes and ears told her she was wrong.

There is a musty smell throughout the school and there are ceiling tiles bowed out, apparently from moisture, Murphy said. Teachers told her they popped allergy medicine throughout the school year and used plastic-coated paperclips because metal clips rust.

At the first Parent Teacher Organization meeting earlier this month, Murphy said she heard a school principal say that any mold problem at Oak Hill had been cleaned up this summer, when Oak Hill and five other Arundel schools were treated for mold. Later, Principal Cheryl Vauls told a reporter the mold "was a little thing, and it's done."

But Murphy said she has heard that before, when she lived in Florida. Her son, Richard, a fourth-grader at the time, developed allergic reactions - sneezing and a skin rash - in response to mold.

"When you have a child who has a problem ... they don't learn," she said. "They miss school. They have constant headaches."

Anne Arundel County's mold problem resurfaced this August after two weeks of high humidity. Six schools underwent cleanup efforts and three - including Oak Hill - sanitized library books. Magothy River and Severn River middle schools, housed in one complex, took 10 days to clean.

Alex Szachnowicz, the school district's acting director of facilities, said the mold problem could be attributed to two factors: heat and humidity, a problem throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

But, Murphy pointed out, mold could be part of a larger indoor air-quality issue, a concern for parents and teachers.

"When you have poor indoor air quality, then you also have mold issues," Murphy said.

There are many kinds of mold. All, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can trigger allergic reactions or asthma attacks.

For Murphy, those allergies pushed her and other parents to action in Florida, resulting in an EPA investigation and cleanup.

Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said teachers are concerned about their health. "This is a growing concern, and the problem is going unaddressed," she said.

Principals at George Fox and Severn River Middle Schools said they would never put their students or faculty in danger. The county school system said problems are addressed on a "case-by-case basis," said Daniel La Hart, the environmental programs manager for Anne Arundel County public schools. "Very rarely is it anything other than a maintenance issue."

"Water always finds its way to a visible surface," La Hart said. And workers wipe those visible surfaces with a bleach-water mixture or remove moisture in carpets by ripping them up and replacing them. "We can't go above every ceiling tile."

Duane Gels, an Annapolis-based allergist, said he has not documented any cases of children in Anne Arundel affected by mold, but encourages awareness. "If you're allergic, the count doesn't need to be very high" to trigger symptoms, he said.

His biggest concern is for students suffering from asthma.

Parents of asthmatic children should monitor their responses throughout the week. "The tip-off would be that they're healthy on the weekend" but have more trouble breathing when they return from school, Gels said.

Sun staff writer Anica Butler contributed to this report.

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