Pennsylvania – (Public Opinion/Ryan Blackwell) – Public concerns about conditions in the St. Thomas Elementary School prompted school officials to test the school and find mold in portions of the building.
On April 4 and Monday, Analytical Laboratory Services Inc., Harrisburg, performed a fungal sampling survey and visual inspection at the school that houses 400 kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The scope of the survey was to visually inspect accessible areas for water infiltration or fungal growth and collect air samples for fungi.
According to a letter that was sent home with students Wednesday, “fungal growth was identified on pipe insulation above drop ceilings in one wing of the school.” The wing affected is the north wing, the newest portion of the school, which was renovated in 1991. About half of the students in the school occupy this wing. Twelve classrooms and the hallway of the wing are affected. Eight of the 12 classrooms are slated for remediation while the other four will be addressed, according to Business Manager Rick Kerr.
“ALS said the school didn’t need to be closed, but the mold had to be removed,” Kerr said. ALS tested for eight types of mold, but the district was most concerned about aspergillus/penicillium, according to Kerr. “We found other types of mold, but I was concerned about aspergillus/penicillium because in one room it was much higher than the outside air count,” Kerr said.
He said school administrators were unaware of any mold issue until the Public Opinion posted a story about the James Buchanan High School in Mercersburg that sparked online comments about mold in the elementary school in St. Thomas. Both schools are part of Tuscarora School District. “Nobody was aware of the mold. Everybody was shocked, but because there were community comments, we went back and looked at the history and the history was it (St. Thomas Elementary School) was clean in 2004 but in 2000 there were a couple of classrooms that had to be remediated,” Kerr said.
“Our initial response was from the online comments that we were hearing and when we talked to the maintenance director we found the last air survey was done in 2004,” said Nadine Sanders, St. Thomas Elementary School principal. “We did this to be proactive.”
In 1992, the district had to install an external drain outside a couple of classrooms because water was getting into the building and causing mold. Then, in 2000 mold appeared in a couple of classrooms. In an effort to solve the most recent mold issue, some students will be moved today to the art and music rooms.
All mold removal will take place after school, weekends and during the summer months to minimize disruption to the students. “I tell parents all the time our responsibility is to educate the students and to keep them safe. In order to keep them safe we have to get rid of this mold,” Sanders said. Also this afternoon ALS, environmental consultants for the district, is to bring in three or four contractors in a pre-bid conference. The contractors are expected to present the district with their quotes on Monday or Tuesday.
Kerr said the remediation will take three to five days per classroom, if it is done one classroom at a time. It will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 for the remediation, which does not include the cost of replacing insulation. Kerr said the money for the project will probably come from the approximately $200,000 that was earmarked for either the reserve fund or to repair the high school swimming pool.
Both Sanders and Kerr said they are not aware of any students who have exhibited health issues due to the mold.
Kerr said the district does not conduct routine air testing. “It (testing for mold) averages $2,000 a building, and if there’s not an indication that there’s a problem, I don’t feel like spending the taxpayers’ money,” Kerr said. “In this case because there was community comment on that article, people asked the question. That’s why we did this. Because the 2004 air quality was OK we didn’t have a concern at St. Thomas. But people said there was mold at St. Thomas, so we decided it was worth looking into.”
Kerr said the district is considering conducting air quality testing in the other unrenovated buildings this summer as a precaution. The other unrenovated buildings are the high school and Mercersburg Elementary School.
Richard McGarvey, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said the school district is using a firm, ALS, that has extensive experience in the field of environmental issues and confirmed that the company has conducted air quality testing in other schools in the state. While the state Department of Health does not require school districts to conduct air quality testing, it has established a set of guidelines dealing with indoor air quality.
Richard McGarvey, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said mold may or may not cause health problems. “It is very difficult to say what the symptoms are for people who are exposed to mold and that’s because the symptoms can range from nothing to headaches and respiratory trouble. It’s a very individual reaction and each individual reacts differently to mold. That makes it hard sometimes because one person might have a runny nose and another person in the same classroom won’t have any problems at all — while another person may be complaining of having trouble breathing,” he said.
What Pennsylvania guidelines say:
- Children may be especially susceptible to air pollution. The same concentration of pollutants can result in higher body burden in children than adults because children breathe a greater volume of air relative to their body weight.
- The typical school has about four times as many occupants as office buildings for the same amount of floor space. A variety of potential pollutant sources exist in schools, including art and science materials, industrial and vocational arts, and gymnasiums.
- Sources of indoor air contamination include polluted outdoor air and underground sources (e.g. radon, pesticides, and leakage from underground storage tanks). Indoor air contamination can also be caused by a variety of indoor sources (e.g. equipment, furnishings, and housekeeping supplies).
- To prevent or help resolve indoor air quality problems effectively and efficiently, schools must ensure that recommended temperature and relative humidity ranges be maintained in the indoor air and that the HVAC system is working properly.
- Pollens and molds may cause allergic reactions, such as asthmatic episodes, for many individuals. No standards exist for biological agents in indoor air, although the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommends relative humidity levels between 30 and 60 percent to control growth.
Other control measures include general good housekeeping and proper maintenance of HVAC equipment. Adequate ventilation and good air distribution are also helpful.
— Pennsylvania Department of Health Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for Pennsylvania Schools, May 2002