Mold menacing students, costing millions
Monday, November 25, 2002 Posted: 8:17 AM EST (1317 GMT)
|East High School
senior Terrence Elsberry, donned a surgical mask when he joined hundreds of students who
refused to attend classes because of toxic mold fears.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) -- To
protest a menace in their school, nearly 1,000 students at East High School in Memphis
skipped homeroom one day.
Across the state,
another 1,000 students spent a month at Bristol Motor Speedway -- not watching NASCAR
races, but studying in the skyboxes while a threat was removed at Sullivan East High
In each case, the
problem was the same: mold.
districts are finding allergy-inducing mold in walls, on carpets and near ventilation
systems. While one report blames aging buildings and mold-promoting construction
techniques, one expert says it's due to a lack of proper ventilation in newer schools.
"It's a growing problem, and
it's one of the more high-priority issues that schools are dealing with," said Ericka
Plater, indoor air quality manager for the American Association of School Administrators.
Mold has forced some administrators
to shut down schools and make millions of dollars in repairs. Others face lawsuits from
students and staff who claim moldy buildings caused long-term health problems.
Prevention and protests
In Austin, Texas, voters approved a
$49.3 million bond issue in February to pay for mold removal and preventive maintenance in
91 schools. In Fort Myers, Florida, several teachers sued county school officials last
week, accusing them of failing to fix mold problems.
In Tennessee, just before the Bristol
students were forced out of their school, teenagers at Heritage High School about two
hours away in Maryville got an unexpected four-week vacation when mold was found there.
The repair estimate: $1 million.
a growing problem, and it's one of the more high-priority issues that schools are dealing with.
-- Ericka Plater, air quality manager, American Association of School
Memphis school board members called
an emergency meeting after hundreds of students there refused to enter East High, which
some parents described as a "mold-infested hazard."
About 600 students received medical
screenings after Donald Criss Mister Jr., 17, died November 16 following an asthma attack.
So far, no link has been found between the death and mold in the school, but the school
board hired an environmental consultant, and federal inspectors with the Environmental
Protection Agency will tour it Monday.
Sonji Wright, the mother of a
student, told Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson that bringing in experts wasn't enough.
"My baby is on a respirator, Mr.
Watson," she screamed through a white mask that covered her nose and mouth in a sign
of protest. "She cannot breathe, and what are you going to do about it?"
Mold problems usually go unnoticed
until people become ill. No federal agency regulates or monitors air quality in schools,
and few states inspect for it.
In Tennessee, no state agency
monitors mold in schools.
"It's really everybody's problem
because it's such a new issue," said Judith Morgan, the state Education Department
spokeswoman. "That's why it seems to be falling kind of between the cracks."
Tennessee's education department sent
e-mail to school officials statewide Friday and directed them to an EPA Web site that
offers guidance on air quality issues.
Plater said a federal report suggests
old, dilapidated schools might be more susceptible to mold. Others say the Gypsum
wallboard and carpeted floors that replaced plaster and wood make newer schools a greater
target because they soak up more moisture.
David Weekley, president of
Knoxville-based Environmental Consulting and Testing, said the 1970s energy crisis
prompted construction of more airtight schools. Less natural ventilation is part of the
problem, he said.
|Sullivan East High School students walk across
the track at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee where they had been attending classes
after the discovery of 'black mold' at their school.
Another factor is
the tendency of cash-strapped districts to delay maintenance and patch leaks, he said.
naturally and can grow almost anywhere that's warm and damp. Experts have identified more
than 100,000 species of mold; at least 1,000 are common in the United States.
While the most
common molds generally aren't hazardous, some types are blamed for headaches, fatigue and
Schools director John O'Dell said the Bristol high school was shut down for about six
weeks and $600,000 worth of repairs after children became ill and several classrooms
tested positive for black mold, or Stachybotrys chartarum, which can cause breathing
The mold there was
primarily around poorly insulated pipes that carry cold water throughout the building to
cool classrooms. The pipes created condensation that dripped onto porous ceiling tiles,
providing a breeding ground for mold.
"I think we're all more
sensitive to it now," O'Dell said. "We've told the principals and custodians to
keep an eye out for any discolored tile and then replace it immediately."