Oak Ridge Elementary Not Safe For Everyone
March 18, 2010
Will there ever be a final report on the long, strange five-year trip of Oak Ridge Elementary School?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has issued the closest thing to such a report, although it still hasn't labeled the report final. The report is dated Feb 24. and zippily titled, "HETA 2009-0172 Interim Report." Here's the Cliff's Notes version: Oak Ridge had serious mold problems, the symptoms reported there were real, and even though the problems at the school have been corrected, the employees and students worst affected may not be able to work or study in the school without a recurrence of symptoms.
Oak Ridge, where environmental problems sickened teachers and students after the school was rebuilt in 2005, has generated more paperwork than just about any other Guilford County elementary school. Guilford County Schools, NIOSH and numerous inspection services have generated ream after ream of information on the school, where mold was found numerous times between 2005 and 2009.
NIOSH came in and inspected Oak Ridge in July 2009, after Guilford County Schools evacuated the school and sent its students to temporary quarters at three other schools. Months of remediation work followed under the guidance of NIOSH and the Turner Group, a New England environmental consulting firm the agency recommended.
NIOSH and the Turner Group issued various interim reports addressing environmental testing and remediation at Oak Ridge, but they were dry technical descriptions of problems at the wet school, not narrative final reports of much use to the average reader. The new report is more conclusive, and more descriptive.
One of the key statements in the report is, "At Oak Ridge Elementary School there was evidence of building-related symptoms." That seems to put to rest the idea that all the symptoms at the school were caused by hysteria, although the climate at the Oak Ridge community was at times hysterical, driven by uncritical media coverage and out-of-town "mold experts."
The Guilford County Department of Public Health, in a report in May 2009, found that the symptoms at Oak Ridge were probably caused by a maladjusted heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system that wasn't bringing enough fresh air into the school and was drying out the air inside the school to Arizona levels. Some parents at the school thought the symptoms were caused by mold, which has been found throughout the school. The NIOSH report lends credence to both theories.
"Staff during the 2008/2009 school year had high rates of lower respiratory symptoms, mucous membrane irritation, and headaches," NIOSH reported. "Even if we adjust for the response rate of 59 percent, these symptoms rates are still high. Staff and students who attended the school during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years had more upper and lower respiratory symptoms as well as headaches, dry eyes, and nosebleeds during the 2008/2009 school year than the 2007/2008 school year, suggesting the problems at the school were getting worse."
Dry eyes and nosebleeds, in particular, suggest dry air as a cause, and, as they were among the most frequently reported symptoms, make it likely that the health department is partly, perhaps mostly, right.
But the NIOSH report also found that some Oak Ridge employees had worse conditions. NIOSH reported, "We suspect at least two employees had occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis."
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is an inflammation of the lungs from breathing in organic substances, usually certain types of dust, fungus or molds, and can cause chills, cough, fever, feeling ill, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and weight loss. It is not caused by dry air. That makes the presence of mold at Oak Ridge on and off for years a likely culprit.
NIOSH said that hypersensitivity pneumonitis has been documented in workers in buildings with contaminated HVAC systems – something Guilford County Board of Education member Darlene Garrett had fingered as a potential cause of the symptoms for months. The HVAC system has now been cleaned and adjusted and NIOSH and the school system say that it is no longer a potential cause of symptoms, if it ever was.
NIOSH, citing previous studies, reported, "Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is under-recognized, and a single case related to a building should be considered a sentinel event requiring investigation and remediation." That's what has now been done at Oak Ridge.
The NIOSH report contains more information on symptoms than had previously been reported. NIOSH found that employees in 2008 and 2009 reported "a constellation of symptoms" related to being in the school, including chest tightness, shortness of breath, coughing, difficulty breathing on awakening, fatigue, sore throat, headache, eye problems, nasal and sinus problems, skin problems, nosebleeds, nausea, vomiting and a metallic taste in the mouth. Citing the health department's report, it said that five of six employees reporting serious symptoms had sought medical treatment multiple times, ranging from five to 30 times.
The NIOSH report also shows a pattern of distribution to the symptoms. NIOSH reported that, of the 52 staff members who worked at the school during the 2008/2009 school year, 27 staff members reported one or more rooms or areas that caused them to experience more symptoms or discomfort. Of those 27 staff members, 12 reported the media room, 12 reported areas in the administrative wing, 10 reported areas in the grades 4 and 5 wing, eight reported areas in the grades 2 and 3 wing, four reported areas in the kindergarten/first grade wing, and three reported areas in the gym/cafeteria wing.
The media center and the office wings of the school have been sited as the center of the mold problem, as well as some of the classrooms.
One thing that's been hard for outsiders to judge at Oak Ridge is the extent of the mold problem, when it existed. Most of the reports on the mold problem are tables of parts per million of various types of mold spores in the air – more exact for the scientist, but hardly the sort of thing that lets outsiders easily picture the extent of the problem. By the time the Oak Ridge mystery became a huge public issue in 2009, there was no visible mold at the school, as the carpets, furniture and fixtures that had been visibly contaminated had been removed. One thing NIOSH investigators and reporters alike visiting the school noted was that the school looked clean.
The NIOSH report contains pictures from 2005 and 2009 that show highly visible mold – in the 2005 pictures, growing on carpets, furniture and picture frames, and, in the 2009 picture, on the floor and pillars of the basement under the school's library. According to parents and teachers, there was equally visible mold on and under carpets in classrooms and offices in the spring of 2009, before those carpets were removed.
When Guilford County Schools returned students to the school last month, some parents criticized the school system for not having an aggressive, ongoing air-sampling program in place. But the NIOSH report suggests that wouldn't help.
"Building consultants often recommend and perform "clearance" air sampling after work has been completed in an attempt to demonstrate that the building is safe for occupants," NIOSH wrote. "However, there is no scientific basis for the use of air sampling for this purpose."
NIOSH did write that employee health questionnaires would be useful to see whether the symptoms returned. It wrote, "The best evidence that the building is safe may be that employees no longer experience building-related symptoms."
Guilford County Schools and NIOSH administered such a questionnaire to Oak Ridge employees on March 2 through March 4 to see if any symptoms had yet returned. The results of that survey are not yet available.
Another important point in the NIOSH report is that, even if new employees and students at Oak Ridge do not have symptoms now that the school has been cleaned, those who have developed an allergy to the mold – NIOSH refers to "substances," but there is no allergy to dry air – may not be able to safely work or learn in the building.
NIOSH wrote, "Because their immune systems may continue to react to very small amounts of substances to which they are allergic, such individuals may have to avoid the building even after an otherwise successful remediation."