Air quality is questioned in Whitney Elementary School and facility reopened to house Whitney kids
Lake Zurich, IL – When flooding, asbestos and toxic mold shuttered a Lake Zurich school last fall, administrators shifted students to a vacant school next door.
A Lake Zurich School District 95 official called the move “overly cautious” at the time. But eight months later, some parents and janitors contend it may not have been cautious enough as this school might also have mold problems.
Parent Carolyn Fitzgerald is urging the district to hold a public hearing about air quality at Whitney Elementary School’s new home after a janitor described “green and yellow mold” in ceiling tiles when he spoke to a panel of state lawmakers last month. District officials dispute the description, citing reports that said the reopened school’s air quality was acceptable. The exchange illuminates the challenge of gauging indoor air quality in public schools, given that it’s largely unregulated.
Fitzgerald and other district residents said they plan to circulate a petition this week to rally support for a meeting and have worked with state Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. (R- Mundelein), who offered to mediate the forum.
“Leaky, damp buildings lead to poor, indoor air quality that can lead to poor health,” said Fitzgerald, who said she removed her son from the school because she was concerned that any mold could affect his health.
Fitzgerald spoke Monday during a rally organized by the Service Employees International Union in the northern suburb to support two workers dismissed by Aramark Corp., the company District 95 hired to provide custodial services. The workers contend they were fired after they spoke publicly about the mold. Charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board and await review, a board official said. An Aramark spokeswoman said the dismissal was unrelated to talk of mold.
The school district closely monitors air quality in the reopened school, and the results of a Feb. 2 test came back “just fine,” said district spokesman Jim Jennings. Mold concentrations found indoors were less than half the concentrations found outdoors, a common measure of a healthy building environment, the report found. Results are pending from another test.”We ordered new air testing to test for mold since the new allegations came out, just so we can put this thing to rest,” Jennings said.
An Illinois Department of Public Health inspector did not find evidence of mold during a routine asbestos check in September, said agency spokeswoman Melaney Arnold.
School air quality remains largely unregulated. The Environmental Protection Agency offers guidelines that instruct schools how to avoid mold or clean it up when detected. There are standards for ventilation and work-place safety.
“But no agency has regulatory authority over the indoors of a school,” said Mark Bishop, deputy director with the Healthy Schools Campaign. “One of the issues with indoor environments is . . . it’s very hard to point to a single measurement or single number and determine whether air is healthy or not.”
Lawmakers considered the issue as part of a hearing before the Illinois House education committee last month.
Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Rock Falls) said Lake Zurich is not the only school district to confront the possibility of mold. He said a step-by-step process might be needed to guide schools or parents as they investigate the presence of mold. Meanwhile, some Lake Zurich parents hope a public hearing about air quality in the Whitney school will spur the district to answer their remaining questions and do further tests.
District resident Virginia Johnson, a retired teacher, said she became concerned when a report last fall said the school had high humidity levels, often a contributing cause of mold.
“I hope to heavens that building is perfectly safe, but unless we actually see something that makes sense and that the EPA and board of health can look at and say ‘this is reasonable,’ ” she and others won’t be satisfied, Johnson said.
District officials closed Whitney Elementary School when mold was found after a flood in August. It was shuttered permanently when tests revealed the mold was capable of producing toxic chemicals and that an extensive clean-up would be required. The school’s 450 students were moved to a vacant former middle school.
An Aramark employee, Gustavo Gomez, helped prepare the vacant school. Gomez told lawmakers that he “saw [ceiling tiles] that were very old, and they were covered in what appeared to be yellow and green mold.”
Jennings said what Gomez described as mold “could also just be dust that was wet.”