Schools hope to clear the air

Districts seek to root out indoor pollutants, create healthier learning environments

December 24, 2005|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

Leaky pipes are a sign of trouble to come. Exhaust from the school buses idling curbside can cause problems. Even air fresheners are a threat.

The hunt is on in Baltimore-area school districts for these and other sources of indoor air pollution. By removing irritants from buildings, teams of parents and school staff hope to cut down on missed school days among teachers and students because of allergies or asthma attacks.

The Harford County school system has won awards for its use of Tools for Schools, a program developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, Carroll County started using the program at its 41 schools. And Baltimore County school officials plan to launch a 40-school pilot program in January with the help of a $54,000 EPA grant.

The effects of bad air can be serious. A 2003 EPA review of research shows that students at schools with poor indoor air quality are absent more frequently than children at other schools. The research also shows that bad air can interfere with memory or concentration. The problems can be worse for those who are especially sensitive to chemicals or personal care products, such as perfumes, that may seem innocuous.

"The biggest thing is just being aware of the environmental issues, and, once aware, how do you correct those issues?" said Valerie Nozea, director of education for the American Lung Association of Maryland.

The Baltimore County Council passed a resolution in 2003 asking the county school system to form a committee to investigate indoor air quality at schools. Tools for Schools was one of three recommendations from that committee, appointed by Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

Based on other recommendations, the school board also voted in September to spend $380,000 to replace air filters in school ventilation systems. In addition, the school system plans to make available copies of its written procedures for investigating environmental health concerns, said Craig M. Ebersole, special assistant to Baltimore County's executive director of physical facilities.

The American Lung Association will train teams, Nozea said. She said troubleshooting helps reduce repairs later on.

Teams are trained to identify anything that might cause trouble for heating and cooling systems, such as dusty surfaces, as well as indoor air pollutants such as cleaning supplies, personal care products or air fresheners, Nozea said.

The teams will also look for evidence of leaks, such as stained ceiling tiles, that might lead to the discovery of mold. Mold has been linked with respiratory problems and can trigger asthma attacks and allergic reactions.

Over the summer, Anne Arundel scoured away mold at six schools - one building was so damp that even paper clips rusted. A Baltimore school canceled classes for about a week last spring after a leaky roof drenched its library. Carroll County cleaned and repaired 20 portable classrooms two years ago after discovering mold in window sills and areas where water collects.

"You could just smell the mustiness," said Carroll's director of facilities Ray Prokop.

"When we've ... identified mold growth and things like that, a lot of concern and fear is generated," Prokop said. "This is a way to prevent us from getting to that point."

About two thirds of Carroll County's schools now have active inspection teams.

"In practice, it takes quite a bit of effort to really get the thing rolling and people interested," he said.

Ebersole said that Baltimore County's administrators would recruit teams of school staffers, parents and students to examine schools. Eight schools in each of the county's five geographic areas will participate in the pilot program, school system spokeswoman Kara Calder said.

Teresa Streb, education liaison and health and safety chairwoman of Baltimore County's PTA Council, hopes that local PTAs can name their own team members.

"We want an independent voice, so that we get the true information that you need to make it successful," she said.

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