Clearing The Air

By David Hill — November 01, 2001 23 min read
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For years, teachers at Whitaker Middle School suspected they’d been going to work in a school where the air was laden with contaminants. They were right.

Whitaker Middle School is a large, bunkerlike building in a low- and middle- income section of Portland, Oregon, not far from the city’s airport. Built in 1967, it has a flat roof, few windows, and a dirty white-and-gray stone facade. When new, it was considered state of the art—for one thing, it had air conditioning, still a rarity in Portland’s public schools—but now it just looks old and dreary.

In July, I met up with two of Whitaker’s teachers outside the school, where weeds grew from the roof of the gymnasium and the lawn was overgrown with dandelions. Grace McKenzie, a 6th grade science teacher, was outspoken and gregarious. Her lime-colored dress, embroidered with large bright flowers, matched her outgoing manner. Sandra DeBellis, who teaches 8th grade language arts and social studies, was plainly dressed in khaki slacks, a white blouse, and a cardigan sweater; she was more serious and somewhat reserved.

“We’re different as night and day,” McKenzie said of the two. On the subject of Whitaker’s air quality, though, the teachers were in total agreement. Both were convinced that they had suffered various health problems—dizziness, asthma, headaches, and more—because of the building. For years, they suspected, they’d been going to work in a school where the air was laden with contaminants, and many of their colleagues shared the same fears. McKenzie and DeBellis had offered to give me a tour of Whitaker, whose fate was uncertain. “The smell of mold is pervasive when you step into this building,” DeBellis warned as we stood in the parking lot.

Sure enough, there was a dank, musty odor in the hallway as we walked inside. Some areas were worse than others, but overall, Whitaker Middle School smelled like a damp basement. There were no obvious signs of mold, but there was plenty of evidence of water leakage. Throughout the building, many ceiling tiles were stained from moisture, and in several places, the walls, covered with a brown imitation-wood Formica, were bulging from what appeared to be years of seepage.

We walked over to the school’s three-story, glass-covered atrium, which contained potted trees and bushes, including a ficus and a pine. McKenzie told me she liked the atrium for its “calming effect,” but when it rains—and in Portland, it rains a lot—water gushes in through the roof. It had rained the day before, and puddles still stood on the concrete floor. The atrium, McKenzie said, had leaked for years and was off-limits to Whitaker’s 700 students.

Near the atrium, in a part of the school called the “A Pod,” was Room A-120, DeBellis’ room. She used to work in another section, but at the beginning of the 2000-01 school year, a new principal consolidated Whitaker’s classes. Before, they’d been scattered throughout the sprawling building, which originally was designed as a 1,200-student high school. Most ended up in the A Pod, where teachers have complained about poor ventilation for more than 10 years.

“When I moved down here,” the 54-year-old DeBellis told me as we walked into her class, “I suffered a migraine headache every day. I took two trips to the emergency room.” The space was about 30-feet square, with high ceilings and eight narrow windows that, like nearly all the others in the building, were sealed shut. (Some classrooms and offices at Whitaker don’t even have windows.) Although the air conditioner was running, the room was hot and stuffy. “It’s always like this,” DeBellis said. “No air circulation.”

Next we walked across the hallway to A-119, McKenzie’s classroom. I could feel cool air blowing in from the vents. “Now you can,” McKenzie said. “Because I complained about it.” On the blackboard, someone had written: “Vents Cleaned. Room Cleaned 6/2.” As far back as 1988, when she began suffering from sinus infections and other symptoms, McKenzie suspected there was a problem with Whitaker’s air. She even filed a workers’ compensation claim, but the district rejected it for lack of evidence. Two years ago, McKenzie was diagnosed with asthma. “I’m 47,” she said, her voice filling with anger, “too young to be having these problems.”

Later, outside the building, she pointed out holes in the ground where mice had burrowed under the structure. For some time, several Whitaker teachers had complained about droppings in classrooms. “I love this school,” McKenzie said, “but I don’t like what it’s doing to me.”

As it turns out, Whitaker Middle School is a very sick place. In fact, tests have shown that the building has been plagued over the years by not one, but two serious health hazards: mold and radon.

The truth—the part about radon, anyway—was first revealed last May, in a disturbing exposé published in Willamette Week, a feisty Portland alternative newspaper. For 10 years, the story reported, the district had tried to mitigate high levels of radon at the school. Yet despite the on-and-off testing and repairs, no one told Whitaker’s teachers and parents about the problems.

Radon is a natural radioactive gas. It is colorless, odorless—and carcinogenic. Testing for the toxin began in Portland’s public schools in 1991 after the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that all U.S. schools be checked. Whitaker has the misfortune of being located atop a geologic formation known as the Alameda Ridge, where 15,000 years ago a series of floods deposited uranium- rich rocks and soil. As uranium decays, it releases radon, which enters the school through cracks in the foundation and then gets trapped in the tightly sealed building. In theory, the ventilation system should take care of the problem by bringing in fresh air. But teachers at Whitaker have long complained about stuffy classrooms, a good indication that the ventilation system wasn’t up to snuff.

‘I love this school, but I don’t like what it’s doing to me.’

Grace McKenzie,
Whitaker Middle School

According to the Willamette Week article, the tests done back in ’91 indicated levels of radon two to three times higher than the EPA’s recommended “action level,” the threshold for corrective action.

“Nobody told us,” Grace McKenzie says in disbelief. Even James Brannon, the school’s principal from 1993 to 2000, claims to have been clueless about the radon. “Most definitely nobody brought the issue to my attention,” he told the newspaper. After the article appeared, the school was closed abruptly, though it reopened six days later, when tests indicated safe levels, most likely because earlier repairs had been successful.

At least to some extent, McKenzie feels relieved that the newspaper’s revelations validated her suspicions. Even her skeptical husband came around after the story appeared: “He said, ‘Oh, maybe it wasn’t all in your head. Maybe some of those things were happening.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I tried to tell you that!’ ” Above all, McKenzie feels betrayed. “I just stood there, and I almost wanted to cry,” she recalls of her reaction to the article. “I’d been saying all along that there was a problem with the building, and [the district] wrote me off as a complainer. . . . And then for them to know about it and not tell us, and not tell the community—that bugged me. And it still bugs me. I could have made a choice not to teach here anymore.”

But even high levels of radon couldn’t explain why teachers at Whitaker were always getting sick. Long-term exposure to the gas can cause lung cancer, but symptoms usually don’t show up for many years. So what was causing the asthma, coughing, and other ailments? At least one teacher strongly suspected mold was the culprit.

When the story broke, though, the district’s manager of environmental health and safety dismissed any concerns about Whitaker. Patrick Wolfe told Willamette Week, which mentioned mold only in passing, that it was “a stretch” to think that poor air quality was causing widespread sickness at the school.

Despite Wolfe’s claims, some teachers, including McKenzie and DeBellis, remained convinced that the building was making them sick. All you had to do, they said, was look around and take a whiff to know that something wasn’t right at Whitaker.

After about an hour inside the building, I was ready for some fresh air. I left with McKenzie and DeBellis and drove several blocks away to a charming 75-year-old elementary school that now housed a restaurant and other facilities. McKenzie and DeBellis had arranged for me to talk to several other teachers in the building’s community room, which turned out to be a former classroom. Unlike the rooms at Whitaker, however, it had large windows that actually opened; the air in the room was cool and fresh.

Though more than a month had passed since the Willamette Week story broke, the teachers remained palpably angry at the school district. Officials, they felt, had violated their trust by concealing the presence of radon and ignoring their many health complaints.

One woman, Bennie Ware, vividly recounted how strange she’d felt there. As soon as she walked into the building, she said, her eyes would itch and burn, and she’d get a funny taste in her mouth. After about 30 minutes, her voice would start to slip away. Sometimes, she’d get violent headaches, “like someone put a band around my head and just tightened up.” When she left the school at the end of the day, her symptoms would disappear, though. And since retiring a year ago, Ware has felt fine, except for some lingering sinus problems.

Despite the on-and-off testing and repairs, no one told Whitaker’s teachers and parents about the problems.

Tim Landos, another recently retired teacher, also suffered serious sinus trouble and eventually had surgery. For several years, Landos explained, he worked out of a small, windowless office at Whitaker. “There was a large vent above my desk, and every so often, it would turn on, and the air would blow straight down on me.” Sometimes, he said, the air had a smoky smell to it. When Landos complained to district officials, he found their response lacking. Someone was sent to check on the vent, and he was assured that it would be cleaned. “I have no idea if they did that or not.”

Later, I spoke by telephone with another teacher, Janice Ingersoll, who had some of the worst problems of the dozen or so teachers who’ve complained. Ingersoll, 52, had always suffered from allergies, but when she began working at Whitaker in 1996, they immediately got worse. “I didn’t connect it with the school until I began getting some headaches and hives,” she said. “I would get better on the weekends and on holidays.

I knew it was the building. I knew it was making me sick.” Ingersoll—and her doctor—suspected that mold might be the cause.

Like Landos, Ingersoll complained to the administration, and in 1998, she filed a workers’ compensation claim. It was denied, but the district agreed to hire an environmental services firm to inspect the building for mold contamination. In its report, the company, PBS Environmental, concluded that there was “no evidence of past or present microbial growth” at Whitaker Middle School.

“You could smell mold in different places [in the building],” said Ingersoll, “but I was told it wasn’t a problem.”

Uncomfortable with her growing reputation as a complainer, Ingersoll just kept going to work each day. And she got sicker and sicker. Her headaches became more severe, sometimes lingering two or three hours into the evening, and her throat had become irritated. Then, last year, she began getting chest pains. Her doctor finally warned that if she was concerned about her health, she should stop teaching at Whitaker. “And I did,” she said. “I stopped going to work last December.” Ingersoll took an unpaid leave of absence while awaiting reassignment to another school. “I have exhausted my savings,” she told me. “But at least I had some savings to exhaust.”

Ingersoll also filed another workers’ comp claim. Once again, though, the district denied that her health problems were related to the building. In fact, a districtchosen doctor dismissed her complaints, saying she merely was having a “midlife -crisis.”

There’s a fungus among us, the saying goes. And it’s true: Mold is everywhere, indoors and out. When present in large quantities, though, the airborne spores can cause allergic symptoms, including sore throats, sinus congestion, headaches, rashes, and shortness of breath. Even worse, “black molds” with scary names like Stachybotrys chartarum and Aspergillus fumigatus release toxic substances that have been blamed for memory loss, chronic fatigue, severe bleeding in the lungs, and other serious problems.

But mold affects people in different ways, and proving a direct cause-and- effect link between the microscopic organisms and sickness is notoriously difficult. That hasn’t stopped some families from fleeing—and, in at least two cases, burning down—their mold-contaminated homes. A recent frenzy of lawsuits related to mold, often directed at home builders, has led some scientists to label it the “new asbestos.”

Mold proliferates in humid conditions, which means that any building that has experienced water infiltration—through, say, flooding, backed-up sewers, or a leaky roof—can become a prime breeding ground. And, unfortunately, many schools have become such places. According to the U.S. Department of Education, public schools are, on average, four decades old and in need of repairs estimated at $127 billion nationwide. At the same time, many districts have drastically decreased their maintenance budgets.

‘You could smell mold in different places, but I was told it wasn’t a problem.’

Janice Ingersoll,
Former teacher at
Whitaker Middle School

No one knows how many schools in the United States are infested with mold. EPA officials do say that about half suffer from poor indoor air quality, whether caused by mold, radon, or other contaminants, and they offer a “Tools for Schools” kit that educators can use to check for bad air. They’re also concerned enough about mold that they recently published a handbook on remedying the problem in schools and commercial buildings. In a section that might as well have used Whitaker as an example, it points out that problems can develop when buildings are so tightly sealed—mostly to conserve energy—that moisture gets trapped inside.

The guide also urges that people who work in possibly contaminated buildings be notified. “Some occupants,” the handbook states, “will naturally be concerned about mold growth in their building and the potential health impacts. Occupants’ perceptions of the health risk may rise if they perceive that information is being withheld from them.”

Finally fed up with district leaders’ unresponsiveness, last January Ingersoll, DeBellis, McKenzie, and 14 other Whitaker teachers signed a petition demanding action. “Several staff members,” the document pointed out, “have been experiencing respiratory problems for quite some time in Whitaker Middle School. Different people have complained at different times to our administrators. No positive response has been forthcoming,” it read. “Coming to a job that is a hazard to your health is not acceptable.”

Again the district failed to respond. It took the Willamette Week article’s release four months later—and the subsequent public outcry—to get the administration moving. Before school ended on the day the story hit the streets, officials announced that Whitaker and two nearby elementary schools would be closed for more radon testing.

The following evening, May 24, parents attended a meeting in Whitaker’s auditorium, where a panel of district administrators and radon experts answered questions. Yes, the parents were told, at times radon levels at the school were high, but the district had taken proper measures over the years—sealing cracks in the floors, increasing the amount of fresh air brought into the building—to mitigate the problem.

But the meeting quickly turned ugly.

According to news reports, angry parents chanted, “We want answers!” and demanded to know why they had never been told about the years of radon testing. Some detailed their children’s mysterious respiratory ailments. One parent screamed: “My child is not going to school in this infested place. What are you going to do?”

The parents had good reason to worry. The EPA notes that poor indoor air quality can undermine a child’s ability to learn: For one, kids who spend their days in sick buildings may suffer from asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism. Research also suggests that bad air can reduce students’ ability to perform mental tasks requiring calculation, memory, or concentration.

The EPA notes that poor indoor air quality can undermine a child’s ability to learn.

For several years, Whitaker—which serves a diverse population of students, about 60 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches—has had the dubious distinction of being the lowest-performing middle school in the state. Now some wonder if there’s a connection between the school’s dismal academic record and its poor air.

Following the meeting, Whitaker remained closed for several more days while the district conducted tests. But even after the building was declared safe—radon levels were below the EPA’s action level—some parents weren’t taking any chances. When the school reopened on June 4, more than 200 students, almost a third of the student body, stayed away.

That evening, at a regularly scheduled school board meeting, district chief financial officer Jim Scherzinger, who was about to become interim superintendent, announced a “five-point action plan” to ensure that Whitaker really was safe. The building’s ventilation ductwork would be cleaned, he promised, and each classroom would be outfitted with two windows that open. In fact, an expert in heating and cooling systems had been consulted, he added, and based on his recommendation, the school’s intake of outside air already had been increased. Scherzinger also suggested that a committee of parents, administrators, and teachers be formed to oversee a full assessment of the school’s air quality.

“Some parents and staff distrust the district’s radon and air-quality data,” he acknowledged, “and it is difficult to move ahead without agreement on the facts.”

The Whitaker Indoor Air Quality Committee had its first meeting a few weeks later. One of the group’s earliest tasks was to hire a certified indoor-air- quality consultant. Since the district had mitigated radon concerns with its action plan, the committee focused on the question of mold. The group settled on Paul Carlson Associates Inc., a small firm based in a Portland suburb. Carlson himself had 28 years of experience. More important, at least to teachers on the committee like DeBellis and McKenzie, was the fact that he had never done work for the Portland Public Schools.

Carlson was scheduled to issue his report on the evening in July that I was in Portland. So after talking to the teachers at the old elementary school, I drove back to Whitaker. Inside the school’s library, six conference tables had been pushed together to accommodate the committee members. Several teachers and a dozen or so parents gathered in anticipation of the results. Almost predictably, the room was hot and stuffy, so someone propped open two doors with chairs to bring in some air from outside.

Tom Pickett opened the meeting. Pickett had been hired recently to replace Whitaker’s outgoing principal, who left for reasons unrelated to the school’s health problems. He quickly turned the proceedings over to Carlson, a burly, middle-aged man with longish blond hair and a matching mustache. He passed out copies of his report, blandly titled “Indoor Air Quality Consultation, July 2001,” to the committee members. Peering through reading glasses and speaking in a barely audible voice, Carlson confirmed many of the teachers’ worst suspicions about their school.

“Chronic water leakage,” Carlson said, “has led to microbial contamination of many areas in Whitaker Middle School.” The drain system—a network of downspouts that run through the building—had broken or gotten plugged up, leading water into the building. Whitaker’s roof had failed, too, and needed replacing (which the district was already planning to do).

‘The widespread contamination requires extensive repairs. The prudent course of action is to not occupy the building until all work is completed.’

Paul Carlson,
Air Quality Consultant,
Paul Carlson Associates Inc.

There was more. Water had leaked into the return-air tunnels under the school; the water, combined with debris in the tunnels, was brewing more contaminants. The ventilation supply in the A Pod, Carlson found, was “well below design criteria,” and he suspected that air-supply ductwork leading to that part of the building had become disconnected. The building’s heating and cooling system was computerized, but, he noted, “no one could be found who can fully explain or operate this system with a high degree of confidence.”

In short, Whitaker was an environmental mess, and it would most likely take millions of dollars and many months to fix. “The widespread contamination in many building areas requires extensive repairs, remediation, and updating,” Carlson said. “The prudent course of action is to not occupy the building until all work is completed.”

Carlson also had discovered a number of molds in the building, including toxic ones like stachybotrys and aspergillus, which, he wrote, are “capable of causing serious adverse health effects.” In a survey of 35 of the school’s teachers, he found unusually high rates of respiratory, skin, and other disorders. For instance, 14 percent of the teachers reported being diagnosed with migraine headaches, compared with just 6 percent of U.S. adults. And a whopping 46 percent of the teachers said they were suffering from sinus problems vs. 14 percent of other adults.

After the meeting, I asked Carlson if the teachers’ health problems clearly stemmed from Whitaker’s air. Although he couldn’t say for sure, he explained that the symptoms certainly were consistent with microbial exposure. I also asked if he could tell how long the building had been contaminated with mold. “No, there really is no way to tell,” he said but added, “We’re talking years, not months or weeks.” Then why, I wondered, did the company that inspected the building for mold in 1998 give it a clean bill of health? “I would really prefer not to talk about another company’s work,” he answered diplomatically.

Patrick Wolfe, manager of the district’s office of environmental health and safety, was sitting in the audience the night of the meeting. Even after listening to Carlson’s findings, he seemed skeptical that poor air quality had caused health problems at Whitaker. “There was never a situation where we felt that anyone’s health was endangered,” he told me. “The tests that we have done consistently show that whatever biological organisms that are airborne, there are fewer of them inside the school than there are in the outside air. And that’s because we filter the system.” Then he added: “This is not to diminish anybody’s feelings or anybody’s sense that their health has suffered from being in this building. Individuals have different and unique reactions to environments.”

Wolfe agreed that Whitaker had suffered from neglect over the years but blamed budget cuts. “At one point,” he said, “we had a steamfitter whose job was [to maintain] this building. He was one of 15. Now we have eight for the entire district, and they come when something breaks.”

He also insisted that, contrary to former principal James Brannon’s claim, Whitaker’s principals were notified about every round of radon testing and each mitigation attempt. If that information wasn’t passed along to teachers, he said, well, that wasn’t the fault of his office.

In light of such shabby communication, Sandra DeBellis is glad she pushed her complaints. “There’s always been this element of investigation that’s part of my nature,” she says. “I think, ‘I better find out about that.’ ” Carlson’s report only confirms her suspicions, and now she also wonders if her entire immune system was compromised by toxic mold. As for the district, DeBellis has little patience for officials’ explanations. “I’m still very resentful that I have these headaches,” she says. “I can’t get rid of them.”

The day after Carlson’s report came out, school officials quickly set up a news conference at the district’s headquarters. Accompanied by Pickett and sitting at a small conference table, Jim Scherzinger wasn’t nearly as defensive as Wolfe. In fact, he had no quarrel with Carlson’s findings. Whitaker, he said, was a “high-maintenance facility,” and “if not maintained perfectly, the building is prone to leaks. Those leaks lead to mold, and that’s what happened here.”

Fixing the building, he said, could cost as much as $4 million, and work couldn’t possibly be completed before the start of school on September 5. As a result, Whitaker’s teachers and students would be moved to other locations for the time being, including a professional- development center.

Scherzinger also pledged to do away with the district’s complaint-driven system of building maintenance. “That clearly didn’t work as well as it should have,” he said. “Now, we’re proactively inspecting school buildings. This will help ensure a situation such as the one at Whitaker will not happen again.”

‘There was never a situation where we felt that anyone’s health was endangered.’

Patrick Wolfe,
Office of Environmental Health and Safety,
Portland, Ore.

Asked by one reporter if he would apologize to Whitaker’s teachers for the district’s failure to take their complaints seriously over the years, he said, “Sure,” and left it at that. He did, however, promise to consult with a panel of health experts to determine whether the school’s air could have caused any health problems.

Later, district spokesperson Lew Frederick insisted that Whitaker will reopen. “Tearing it down is not something that anyone has talked about,” he said.

But it will take a lot to sell teachers on the notion that the building is habitable. After the press conference, I talked with Richard Garrett, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, who’d been sitting in the back of the room. He called the report a “terrible indictment of the district’s safety office.”

I asked him why, even after the most recent round of testing, some Whitaker teachers were still skeptical of the district’s claim that radon levels at the school were safe. “At this point,” he said, “there’s a huge distrust of leadership because of the way the district has managed this issue. It’s not enough for the superintendent to say that the radon problem is solved to convince people that it’s solved. Nobody believes these folks these days on this issue.”

For now, at least, Whitaker Middle School is empty and quiet. In August, some teachers, including Sandra DeBellis, stopped by to pick up their belongings. DeBellis had decided to take a medical leave of absence from teaching for a year. She hopes never to step foot inside Whitaker again.

She and her colleagues say they feel vindicated by Carlson’s report. “Now I know it wasn’t just in my mind,” says Grace McKenzie. Janice Ingersoll, now back in the classroom after receiving the transfer she’d requested, claims: “They surely could have taken care of that building. And I truly, truly believe that had this been a building in a more affluent neighborhood, it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.”

She and McKenzie are both talking to their lawyers about taking the district to court, and at least one parent is considering a class action suit. Meanwhile, Ingersoll has learned that school officials will accept her two workers’ compensation claims after all.

“I’m thrilled about that,” she says. “But at this point, they owe me some apologies, and some rather public ones. Because they said I was a disgruntled employee; they said I was having a midlife crisis and suffering from anxiety and depression. I think there’s something more they need to do.”

When I asked Frederick if any apologies were forthcoming, he told me, “The district has made it clear that there were some concerns [at Whitaker] that were not addressed.” To offer any kind of apology, he said, “would quite frankly be a problem if we do end up with a lawsuit, so I’m not going to go there.”


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