by Michael Holtzman – Staff Writer : Woonsocket Call
July 29, 2002
NORTH SMITHFIELD — When it comes to correcting the quality of indoor air in schools, parents push their concerns and school officials retreat behind budget restraints.
That typical tension to a sometimes-invisible national problem in large part categorized the backdrop when mold problems at North Smithfield Elementary School two years ago polarized the two sides. But the environment has changed dramatically — both between the school room walls and the individuals involved. As such, NSES was the site of a round-table discussion about a week ago aimed at holding a statewide event to publicize what’s known, what’s being done and what should be done to mitigate indoor air quality health impacts, while ultimately setting up a "clearing house" for school systems to help one another. "I think that they were willing to step up to the plate and make a commitment of financial resources to do what needed to be done. I think that’s exemplary," Lodie Lambright, program manager for the Asthma Control Unit of the state Department of Health, said about North Smithfield.
Similarly, Molly Clark, environmental health program director for the American Lung Association in Rhode Island, who like Lambright attended this initial meeting, witnessed a changed atmosphere surrounding NSES. "They came a long way in a couple of years. A lot of the problems they were originally dealing with have been dealt with, and I think the overall relationship between parents and the schools has improved," Clark said. It’s the combination of replacing the NSES roof, replacing suspect carpeting with tile at the town’s newest school, upgrading ventilation filters and using new cleaning agents to combat mold, combined with parents and school officials working more in concert, that’s elevated North Smithfield to the forefront. Continuing its pro-active stance, the School Health and Safety Association Inc. (SHASA), the parents group that became a gadfly to school officials when significant health issues surfaced in November 2000, is playing a lead role with the support of its school system and state health leaders.
Acknowledging "the emotional and financial cost" the past two years have brought, SHASA President Paulette Hamilton-Kell said their common goal has not been compromised. "We want other communities to realize that they too can take steps to improve their schools, and that not doing so will ultimately cost more in the long run," she said. Superintendent M. Richard Scherza said.: "In a lot of ways, we’ve learned a lot.
Out of something very painful, some good things have happened." Scherza was also able to say something about NSES, an elementary school for upwards of 700 pupils in pre-kindergarten through Grade 5, that would have been scoffed at years ago. "I think this is the kind of school people would want to work in," he said. The veteran superintendent assessed during this first of several expected subcommittee meetings to plan a statewide event — probably in October — that there’s a basic problem every school system faces over indoor air quality issues: While school departments and building committees rely upon "good science and good scientists" for accurate information, no single source can provide answers to common problems. Ray Boss, the school district’s facilities manager, who will be the administration’s representative in this cooperative effort, said when a new school or an addition like NSES put on this year is planned, architects, school officials and people like himself need to be aware of current recommendations and guidelines. But that is not always the case, Boss said.
According to Hamilton-Kell, SHASA and the administration "struggled through the process of determining which guidelines to follow during the remediation process and the subsequent building of the new ($3 million) addition." "As a result, North Smithfield has learned through trial and error and is now willing to share its expertise on indoor air quality with other communities that may be experiencing similar problems," Hamilton-Kell said. Their ultimate goal, she said, is to set up a network, a single state agency, a clearing house of updated information that is consistent, reliable and available to all. Bolstering the optimism of her organization, state officials with common concerns are committed to the group effort. For instance, the Asthma Control Unit — concluding a three-year grant of $200,000 annually from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta — is committed to co-sponsoring the fall forum with SHASA.
Through the Department of Health, Lambright is working on finding the venue for what’s envisioned as a half-day summit. She expects they’ll bring school facilities managers from all over the state, for example, to talk about what they’re doing to improve indoor air quality. SHASA, which learned about the Department of Health’s contemplation of a state event, had a similar idea and representatives began talking between themselves, Lambright said. There was agreement that "yes, this is a good thing. We need to go ahead," said Lambright. "So this is a beginning." She said funds for the Asthma Control Unit under its initial grant were to develop a statewide asthma control plan, a condition known to be hurt, by poor air quality.
A second stage, over the next five years, would be for the Asthma Control Unit to implement the plan. The American Lung Association would be the lead agency for intervention, Lambright said. According to the Lung Association’s Clark, significantly rising asthma rates nationwide, combined with the "triggers" that affect asthma, have played a role in school communities paying more attention to indoor air quality. Along with North Smithfield, East Providence, Exeter-West Greenwich and South Kingstown are among the school districts that "have done a lot." At NSES, said Clark, who’s been involved with SHASA, "they did have to replace the roof — they had no choice." Clark said constructive communication between school officials and parents, coupled with reliable resources, are key to reaching the goal of "having every building as clean as possible." She told an ironic story that happened well over a decade ago in the Warwick schools and is still repeated.
It happened when the asbestos removal tidal wave first surfaced. One day, without any notice to parents or pupils, "men in white moon suits" appeared at the school, while classes were in session, to begin encapsulating the affected areas. The reaction couldn’t have been much worse if Orson Wells hit the radio airwaves for the first time with "The War of the Worlds." "The whole idea of having open discussions is to avoid things like that," Clark said. She said people like Hamilton-Kell and Melissa Flaherty of SHASA sitting down with Scherza, Boss and NSES Principal Carolyn Frayne are an example of school districts "getting past the more acrimonious stage and saying, ‘Let’s deal with the problem.’" "We are very pleased that so many agencies are willing to take part in such an important step toward better understanding of the issues facing communities," Hamilton-Kell said. "We believe that all our resources will make a difference."