Sniffing Out School Illness: Is It in the Air?
Jessica Trahan would rather be hanging out with her friends at North Country Union High School here than plodding through her math homework on her living room couch. But the 14-year-old freshman says school literally makes her sick.
"At first I thought, 'It's a new school, I'm nervous.' But I'd get constant sinus infections and headaches, and soon I couldn't take it anymore," said Jessica, who has been home-tutored at district expense ever since she fainted in class and was whisked to the emergency room with a severe rash three months ago. A family physician said the otherwise healthy teenager was allergic to something in the building, and he advised her not to venture back until the school's air quality improves. She did just that--on a very limited basis--earlier this month after the school made a few atmospheric adjustments.
Even in pristine locales like northern Vermont where the outdoor air is enviably clean, students may be picking up more than facts and figures when they enter school buildings these days.
Experts say the indoor-air quality of the nation's schools has deteriorated over the past several decades. They attribute the problem mainly to aging, tightly sealed buildings with antiquated ventilation systems, and to newer, more potent chemicals being deployed in science labs and by maintenance crews.
"Since the energy crisis in the 1970s, people just tightened up buildings to conserve energy, and because districts saw savings, they never opened schools back up again," said John Geuvin, a program analyst with the indoor-environments division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that 46 percent of American schools have problems with their indoor-air quality or their ventilation systems.
Many older schools also have leaky roofs that can generate microbiological growth in the duct-work or humidifiers. And some newly constructed schools have posed problems, too, the experts say, by using modern synthetic building materials and furnishings that can emit pollutants.
"Things have gotten worse, and the problem is everywhere," Mr. Guevin said.
Many school administrators are beginning to pay more attention to the so-called sick-building issue if only to ward off potential lawsuits. Yet school boards are often reluctant to commit money to cleanup efforts because science is still sketchy about whether exposure to indoor pollutants triggers serious health problems or compromises children's ability to learn.
But Jessica Trahan's mother, Cindy Trahan, who has become this rural, Canadian-border town's unofficial environmental expert since her daughter collapsed in class, says the proof of a health risk at North Country High is right under your nose.
"Just take a deep breath," said Ms. Trahan, wincing as she stepped into a classroom where a dozen sophomores were bowing their heads at their desks during independent study on a recent winter day.
Though it was 25 degrees outside under a cloudless blue sky, the air inside the 30 year-old building was so muggy that some students were stripped down to their T-shirts.
"It's really stuffy in here, and if you can't breathe it's hard to concentrate," said Annette Cota, a 15-year-old penciling algebraic equations in a spaghetti-strap top.
As is common with many older schools' heating systems, when the outside temperature dips below 34 degrees, the ventilators stop taking in fresh air and simply heat the recirculated air in the building, according to the school's maintenance supervisor.
"That means there's nowhere for the bad air to go," Ms. Trahan said. "There's no escape."
Trapped is exactly how Delores Petit felt when she showed up at North Country Union High School every day. So in 1995, after 1« years of working as a secretary at the Orleans-Essex district's only high school, she quit. The 45-year-old Ms. Petit suffered colds, debilitating migraine headaches, and frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. All her symptoms would subside on the weekends and during vacations.
"Something was making me violently ill, and it had to do with the school," said Ms. Petit, who has been diagnosed with chemical sensitivity and advised by her doctor not to re-enter the school. Ms. Petit now has a workers' compensation claim pending against the 3,500-student district. "I want to be compensated for lost work, I want the school cleaned up, and my job back," she said.
Since Ms. Petit and another employee resigned with similar symptoms two years ago, the district has commissioned a battery of tests on the 150,000-square-foot high school, which enrolls 1,050 students. Tests showed that the carbon dioxide levels in at least 10 of the school's 75 classrooms had more than the acceptable federal standard for adequate ventilation.
Though carbon dioxide--expelled through exhaling--is not hazardous, a high reading indicates inadequate circulation of fresh air, according to the EPA. And when ventilation is limited, hazardous chemicals can easily accumulate.
Tests of the school by independent environmental consultants also found low levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and styrene, a narcotic. Both chemicals are found in cleaning agents and other household materials. One test also showed evidence of carbon monoxide in the wing of the building near the auto shop, where students' test-cars idle.
"There isn't enough fresh air coming into the building, and so chemicals are lingering, and that's what you have to be concerned about," said Dr. Julius Anderson, the vice president of Anderson Laboratories. The private lab in West Hartford, Vt., reviewed various tests conducted on the building at Ms. Petit's request. "Low levels of pollutants adds up to a large toxic load," Dr. Anderson said.
Administrators agree that the U-shaped brick complex built in 1967 has some air-quality problems, and they have taken some steps to correct them.
By opening the outside doors and limiting the number of cars running simultaneously, the district has already improved the ventilation in the auto shop. Though many chemicals were found at only very low levels, the school has directed the maintenance crew to discontinue the use of dozens of potentially harmful ones. Officials have also installed a new computer-monitoring system to track carbon dioxide levels in trouble spots throughout the building.
But even though school leaders have committed to certain improvements, most are reluctant to blame the assorted illnesses of students and staff members on North Country High's indoor environment. "I'm not personally concerned about my health in this building," said Arne Amaliksen, the high school's business manager. A former chemist who worked at Dow Chemical Co., Mr. Amaliksen sees no imminent danger. "I'd bring my grandchildren in here," he said.
Carol Bailey, the school nurse, is also skeptical.
Since last August, 76 students and staff members have registered complaints in the school's environmental log, citing headaches, eye irritations, and gastrointestinal distress. While Ms. Bailey is sensitive to students' aches and pains, she doubts that exposure to airborne contaminants is the sole cause.
"With peer pressure, academics, high school is stressful," the nurse said, zipping around a room full of ailing teenagers. "There's so many factors that you can't say it's all air-quality-related."
'Hard To Study'
Scientific research on the health consequences of exposure to indoor pollutants is relatively weak, environmental experts acknowledge.
For centuries, scientists have known people could fall seriously ill from repeated exposure to some noxious outdoor pollutants. A study of chimney sweeps in the 1770s, for example, found that the workers' high rate of scrotal cancer was related to their contact with soot.
Two hundred years later, in the 1970s, the EPA identified asbestos and lead in school buildings as serious environmental threats. Many experts later found that the threat posed by asbestos in schools was minimal, but that removing the material--which releases it into the atmosphere--could actually cause more problems.
But it's easier to identify pollutants that may cause serious diseases in a stable group of people than to ferret out the causes of common illnesses in a changing population such as a school, said Kenneth Green, the director of environmental studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, a think tank based in Los Angeles. With indoor air, myriad possible combinations of irritants can be tested, Mr. Green said.
"It's very hard to study because the [health] problems claimed could be caused by family stress, an allergy to a cleaning agent, or internal illnesses," he said. Even less is known about how stale, polluted air in schools might frustrate students' academic achievement. But, Mr. Green added, "just because there isn't any evidence doesn't mean it's not there."
Faced with such limited knowledge, frugal school systems are often cautious about fixing things that may never cause any harm. But many administrators are also concerned that they will be held financially responsible if they fail to take action.
"Though we are not as a society up to speed on what might cause poor indoor-air quality, schools are becoming more aware of the consequences if their air quality is not good," said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators.
A 5th grade teacher in Mineral County, W.Va., filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against her school board last year for failing to transfer her out of a classroom that she claims made her seriously ill. The teacher, who suffers from allergies to molds, said the Mineral County district failed to accommodate her under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. A judge ruled in favor of the school board last summer, but the teacher is appealing the decision. ("W.Va. Teacher Sues Over Classroom Air Quality," June 18, 1997.)
Administrators nationwide say it would help them determine if and when to take action on air-quality problems if there were standards that specifically applied to schools. Now, districts typically consult the federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines on air quality, which were created to protect adults in industrial workplaces. But the OSHA standards on minimal air-pollution levels are much higher than is recommended for children, who have a lower tolerance to contaminants, environmental experts say.
While national air-quality standards for schools may be years away, some representatives in Congress are gathering information that could lead to minimal standards in public buildings.
And at least five states, including Vermont, have adopted or are now crafting indoor-air-quality standards for schools. A special indoor-air-quality committee in the Vermont legislature is expected this month to issue recommendations on new school construction and ventilation systems.
In the meantime, the EPA has teamed up with the National Education Association to dispense information to schools hungry for practical--and inexpensive--air-freshening tips. The NEA has sent out hundreds of Tools for Schools Kits, which contain information on how to clean heating and cooling systems, eradicate everyday pollutants, and ventilate tightly sealed buildings.
Clean Air Costs
But for many school systems, only an overhaul of an inefficient ventilation system can finally fix the problem. And that is costly. The GAO estimates that it would cost billions of dollars to restore the air quality of the nation's schools. Air-quality engineers estimate the cost of a new ventilation system at about $500,000 per school, depending on its size.
North Country High School is scheduled to begin revamping its ventilation system this summer. District officials here have committed $300,000 from a bond passed in 1996 to the project. But school leaders recognize that it could cost an additional $1.5 million to outfit the whole building with a workable heating and cooling system.
Mr. Amaliksen says that convincing this poor, rural community, which has one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state, to front the school the extra bond money may be a hard sell.
"We believe an upgrade is needed. But this community can't afford any more," Mr. Amaliksen said as he scanned his computer monitor for carbon dioxide readings in his office. Luckily, he said, "this is not a problem that needs emergency measures. It's not Panicville."