Schools Gone Bad

Schools Gone Bad

Mold, lead, toxic air and ground pollutants are attacking the nation's schools. Here are some exampl

And the list goes on. Numerous schools nationwide have been or are at the center of health problems linked to mold, lead paint and toxic dumps or industrial sites. But it is nearly impossible to directly correlate health problems among students with the school's problems, experts and public health officials say.

But there is help for these polluted schools and the officials that oversee them.

"Our primary focus is to help local community groups faced with an environmental threat. ... We provide them with scientific information and experts. We [offer] assistance, get communities together and hold elected officials accountable," says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which strives for environmental justice.

Gibbs formed the group after she was evacuated from her home in 1978 at Love Canal, a former hazardous waste dump site in Niagara Falls, N.Y. "When I was fighting Love Canal and I was trying to find the problem, ... and the solution, ... no one was there to help me," she says.

Gibbs says she knows of more than a dozen schools nationwide that have been built on or next to contaminated sites. Her organization is introducing criteria for state and local legislation that defines where new schools can be built to avoid having them built on or near contaminated soil or air.

"And there are a lot of mold problems," she adds. "The majority of the schools in the nation, especially those in urban areas, are old and are prone to it."

According to the group's Poisoned Schools report, childhood disease rates are rising, with asthma afflicting nearly 4.8 million U.S. children. Cancer is the No. 1 disease-related killer of children, according to the report.

Top indicators that schools are sick include a high number of children with asthma, hyperactivity, headaches or dizziness, Gibbs says. "Look at how many kids are in special education" and compare it to another school in the district at a different location, she says. "If more kids [in the school near pollutants] are in special ed, they could likely be exposed to chemicals that will give them hyperactivity or asthma."

The School Pond That Won't Freeze?

In Elmira, N.Y., fears surfaced during the summer of 2000 when parents found several former and current students at Southside High School had cancer. Since the school opened in 1979, at least 40 students have been stricken, according to a published news report. The joke around town was that the pond behind the school never froze due to the plethora of chemicals in it. In the end, officials learned the school was built on land that was used for heavy industry for more than a century and it had motor fuel and cancer-causing chemicals buried in its soil. The district formed a committee of parents, local physicians, geologists from Cornell University and attorneys that assisted state agencies involved in testing.

Teachers found mold growing on walls, tables and chairs, while condensation dripping from pipes added to mold growth on drop ceilings Edgewood Middle School,Edgewood, Md.

The New York State Department of Health did not find an excessive number of cancer cases among students, but did find an excessive number of testicular cancer cases among boys aged 15 to 19 from 1997 through the first half of 2000. Among males 20- to 34-years-old between 1980 to 1998, fewer than six cases of testicular cancer were observed.

But Elmira School District Superintendent Laura Sherwood says the school is not hazardous. "The contaminants found were deemed at acceptable or buried levels," Sherwood says. "Nothing was seeping into the school."

The district temporarily closed tennis courts, playing fields and a parking lot in the fall of 2000 while tests were performed, but they were reopened in March 2001.

"We would never ever put kids or staff at risk," Sherwood says. "The board erred on the side of caution when it closed the fields last fall. It was a precautionary measure."

Now the district follows up with regular air and water quality samples. But Gibbs is quick to point out that when toxic materials are found, they are sometimes at levels that are tolerable by adults only and not by children, who are smaller and have a lower tolerance.

Other districts face similar problems. In the River Valley School District in Marion, Ohio, some parents want children out of the middle and high schools. But school leaders insist they are safe.

The high school and middle school were built on a former dumping site for U.S. Army's Marion Engineering Depot. During the 1996-97 school year, a school nurse found about six or seven high school graduates contracted leukemia. Thomas G. Shade, River Valley superintendent, says a contractor for the EPA dug up a radioactive item from the property.

In February 1998, concerned parents petitioned the agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to perform a public health assessment of River Valley middle and high schools and of the county. This registry is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the main federal public health agency involved in hazardous waste issues,

Students were seen running their hands over peeling paint, then putting those hands in their mouths Catskills Elementary School, Los Angeles, Calif.

Meanwhile, that spring, the Army Corps of Engineers found solvents, spent fuels, old tires, paints, and degreasers in the soil. An outdoor nature lab, baseball field and cross-country route were off-limits to students and the public. Legal counsel was hired for about $500,000, Shade says.

A Restoration Advisory Board was created and comprised of citizens who advised the engineers in their investigation and kept track of data.

The Ohio Department of Health estimated that of 35 cancer cases of high school graduates in a 30-year period, eight were leukemia. But they concluded the leukemia mortality was spread across Marion, reducing the likelihood that a single source of soil contamination was the cause. The department recommended followup analysis.

"Our consultants and I think all the agencies involved in this concur that this campus remains safe for students, staff and visitors" provided the district continues to restrict certain areas and "aggressively monitors the air, water and soil appropriately," Shade says.

While Shade says it is safe, the district decided to move the schools to a new site in August 2003 because the EPA now would not allow schools on such a site. Moving to a new site is cheaper than cleaning it to residential standards, which is where the school is located, and it removes any doubt about the schools' safety.

Mold in Maryland

Edgewood Middle School in Maryland was built in the mid-1960s. When a new section was built in 1978 with air-conditioning, it was inefficient in removing humidity, which caused condensation and mold growth.

In August of 2000, teachers found mold growing on walls, tables and chairs in the newer section, says Don Morrison, director of public information for Harford County schools.

When school started, "hypersensitive individuals" claimed their asthma and allergies were aggravated, says Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for school operations.

That October, tests were performed. The main problem was found in overhead chilled water pipe insulation-where condensation from dripping pipes added to mold growth on drop ceilings. But the professionals did not consider it a "grave danger to the occupants," Licata says.

Students were shifted from the area for about six weeks while the section was cleaned with a disinfectant and bleach solution. Insulation was replaced on the air conditioner piping and floors were vacuumed with special filters. The whole cost was about $300,000, Licata says, and the building is the "cleanest it has been in a long time."

Staff members continue to monitor

the situation and requested to have air conditioning in the entire school building.

"We will never convince some people that the school is safe for their children," Licata says.

Lead in California

Even some schools in the City of Angels have had or have some type of "toxicity" problem, according to Joseph Scollo, director of school services in local district K of Los Angeles Unified School District. While one danger lurked at Park Avenue School 12 years ago, which was built on a former dump and temporarily closed after tar was found exuding from the ground to the playground surface, another danger lurked at Catskills Elementary School.

Lead, which is still the most serious toxic threat to children, is in the school's paint. A year ago, students were seen running their hands over peeling paint, then putting those hands in their mouths, according to an investigative journalist report, says Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health and safety for L.A. schools.

Bellomo says most L.A. schools are old and, thus, have lead paint, like many other schools nationwide. But the district has since scrapped off peeling paint in those schools and repainted. "I would say the steps the district has implemented have been generally successful," Bellomo says.

According to the Institute for Environmental Assessment, a national, institutionalized environmental health and safety company, 5 percent to 17 percent of U.S. children have lead levels in their blood, causing lower IQ's.

While Bellomo says all lead cannot be removed, he knows of no student in L.A. schools poisoned by lead.

Lessons Learned

Hindsight is 20/20.

Bellomo says his district lost some credibility during the school scares. "We are going to find our own problems and be honest with people," he says.

"Do the right thing. In a court of law, juries look favorably on school boards that take the initiative themselves." -Lois Gibbs, executive director, Center for Health, Environment and Justice

Now, Bellomo says a team of 15 staff members will go to the roughly 900 school buildings in L.A. and inspect them annually for any of 20 problems, such as lead, mold, asbestos or pesticides. The results will be accessible to anyone and on-site administrators will be informed of deficiencies and what specific corrective actions to take.

"The burden is on us to act," Bellomo says. "We've got to be proactive. ... If kids are sick due to a mold problem and they miss school due to an illness, or kids are not learning, ... it is a detriment to the learning experience."

Sherwood in Elmira, N.Y., recommends keeping the process open to the public, keeping minutes of meetings in the public library, and making sure the media has the facts. The district is still engaged in the New York State Cancer Registry in search of high school students since 1980 to see if any cancer crops up. "The community really wanted to know the cancer incidents," Sherwood says.

"They weren't satisfied with the health department's way of determining cancer clusters."

"I think it was important for the school district to demonstrate earnestness and to try to get enough information for families as was possible," she says.

Shade in Ohio says he made himself available to calls at home and mailed parents the most recen reports from agencies involved. And the school's Web site was active with Q & As, he says.

Shade adds hiring legal environmental counsel is also key. "I think it's important for any district to follow good sound scientific process," he says. "It's very important to land on that and not on emotion and not on innuendo and not on fear."

Licata and Morrison in Maryland suggest that if district staff members see ceiling tiles that are damaged with water, replace them immediately. And they advise districts to regularly check water pipes for leaks.

"Education of occupants is critical to not allowing this to happen again," Licata says. "Excellent cleaning techniques are critical as well as efficiently operated and maintained HVAC systems."

According to the Institute for Environmental Assessment, which performs lead inspections when parents or local health officials are worried, schools should not undertake wholesale removal of lead nor buy property without a proper lead assessment. Schools should also sample dust on floors, window sills and food preparation areas.

And to avoid building on toxic waste dumps, school administrators should investigate town or city records to learn what the land was used for in the past, Gibbs says.

Gibbs suggests that school boards be proactive. "Do the right thing," she suggests. "In a court of law, juries look favorably on school boards that take the initiative themselves. If they don't take the initiative, they get into a fight with the parents, and they end up having more personal liability. Then more people are angry and more people want justice."

Angela Pascopella, apascopella@edmediagroup.com, is associate features editor.


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