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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Air quality can be a difficult subject for schools

Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer

Allergy-like symptoms over the past few years among staff at the Coeur d’Alene School District’s main office – symptoms attributed to building mold – have prompted office moves, independent testing, a new ventilation system and even the removal of a tree that blocked light into windows.

The symptoms diminished, so no one considered the building’s past problems when district officials decided to move a classroom there, Superintendent Hazel Bauman said. But after being told that the consultant who examined the building in April 2007 questioned the logic behind such a move, Bauman said the district will reconsider.

“If there’s any question that we’re going to put kids in danger, I won’t do it,” she said.

It’s a problem school officials across the nation face regularly: When do mold and air quality concerns warrant warnings and closures, and when might such moves invoke more hysteria than awareness?

“Once there’s a perception of a problem it becomes very, very difficult to address,” said Travis Trent, manager of Spokane’s Fulcrum Environmental Consulting Inc., who conducted the tests on the Coeur d’Alene district offices. But mold isn’t as scary as some fear, he said. “It kind of ranks up there with pollen and cat dander. If you’re allergic, you’re going to have some problems. If you’re not, you’re not.”

Science and health

Experts estimate one in four people are allergic to mold or other air contaminants, Trent said.

Wendy Conner says she’s one of them.

The Sandpoint teacher left Farmin-Stidwell Elementary School after a mysterious smell that began in fall 2006 affected her health so much her doctor ordered her not to return to the building, even after she moved to a classroom on the other side of the school and long after the district declared the problem solved.

“I was sick every day I was there,” she said. “I felt that I was losing my mind.”

She transferred to Washington Elementary last year and since has felt fine.

As at the district office, the smell at Farmin-Stidwell caused allergy-like symptoms, ranging from headaches to runny noses to memory loss, but air quality tests showed nothing unusual and the building remained open.

“It is difficult to have a discussion around what science tells us and how people feel,” Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, said in an e-mail. “Anecdotally, in my opinion, the dilemma with most mold-related air quality issues is that testing will often confirm that air quality meets standards. However, individuals have different tolerance levels.”

Lake Pend Oreille spent $45,000 combating the smell, which experts linked to air ventilation beneath the school that pushed moldy, musty air into the building.

The situation was similar in the Coeur d’Alene School District, where employees at the district office on North 10th Street began reporting health problems they attributed to mold about two years ago. State tests revealed air contaminant levels slightly higher than those outside – the air quality industry’s standard measurement for clean air – which gave little reason to be concerned, according to a report by Wayne Dockstader, a certified industrial hygienist with the state of Idaho.

But when employees continued to report symptoms nearly a year later, the district contracted with Fulcrum Environmental to reassess the building at a cost of $5,000.

Trent said the building stumped him. He couldn’t find mold, but he knew something was causing employees to report itchy eyes, scratchy throats and other symptoms. Trent said a Fulcrum employee experienced similar symptoms within minutes of entering the building. After weeks of examination and research, he recommended the district examine its heating system.

“My suspicion is it’s extremely unlikely that there’s a condition that would be problematic for children,” Trent said. “That being said, just given the fact that we’ve had concerns in that building and that it’s an older building, if someone called and said, ‘Hey, we want to move a classroom there,’ I would certainly express concern.”

With that, the Coeur d’Alene district ditched plans to hold the Sorensen Magnet School for the Arts and Humanities Advanced Learning Program in the building’s conference room. Bauman and Sorensen Principal Jim Gray will meet with parents this summer to find an alternative location.

An emerging issue

Cvitanich dealt with mold issues while an area superintendent with the Highline School District in Western Washington that proved much more costly than dealing with the musty smell that permeated Farmin-Stidwell. Highline closed two schools because of mold contamination and rebuilt one.

Riverside High School in north Spokane County dealt with a mold problem so severe that employees filed a class action lawsuit. It was resolved when the district agreed to a list of eradication methods that included ongoing air monitoring. The school spent more than $236,000 dismantling and cleaning rooms, hiring specialists and running tests.

The 2002 settlement came on the heels of what Trent said has been an explosion of concern over mold and indoor air quality issues in the past few years.

Web sites dedicated to the subject warn of dire health consequences and relay horror stories from teachers and students, and self-proclaimed experts advertise medical services and eradication procedures across the nation.

Industry experts have no standard of measurement for what’s dangerous and what’s not, said Harry Beaulieu, president and senior scientist of Boise-based Industrial Hygiene Resources; it’s typically based on outdoor levels versus indoor levels.

“There are no limits we recommend as safe or unsafe,” he said. “In general, most of the indoor quality issues that we face today are pretty subtle. We’re not having kids picking asbestos off the walls or (pipe wrap) in the classroom anymore.”

Most modern air quality issues boil down to allergies, Beaulieu said.

But the balance between health, science and hysteria remains a careful one.