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Mold at school stirs concern

A school district consultant finds no significant environmental problems at Lecanto Middle, but reports of symptoms worry some parents and staff members.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

LECANTO -- Cindy Anderson didn't think much of it last August when her 11-year-old son William came home sick during his first week in sixth grade at Lecanto Middle School.

Over the next several weeks, the sick days began to accumulate, and Anderson began to wonder.

"I thought maybe he was being a kid, thinking that if he called mom, he wouldn't have to go to school," Anderson said. "By the time he got back home, he'd be feeling fine."

The headaches, scratchy eyes and other complaints continued, so she took William to the doctor last October. After a series of tests, the doctor concluded that nothing was physically wrong, but something in the boy's environment was making him sick. The conclusion: Her son was having a toxic reaction to mold in his school.

The health problems have all but disappeared since William transferred to Inverness Middle School.

Meanwhile, Anderson had collected a heap of anecdotal evidence that some students, staff and parents who help at Lecanto Middle were getting sick from something in the building for some time.

She took her concerns to top school officials. She went to the Citrus County Health Department. When she didn't get the answers she felt she needed to hear, she went public.

A test by the school's district's environmental consultant concluded that there were no significant environmental problems, but Anderson questions those conclusions.

Officials say they have followed up on the concerns they have heard. They have checked out the room where William had reported feeling sick and made some minor changes there. They say their consultant determined there were no problems that needed to be addressed further.

* * *

Sandra Williams, who was William Anderson's sixth grade science teacher, said school officials should know well who has had problems and where to look.

After all, she said, staff has been raising the issues through proper channels for years.

She once thought her scratchy eyes were due to contact lenses. Then she got surgery to correct her vision problem, but the eye itching continued.

After Anderson raised the question about the classroom, Williams said she started to talk to other teachers. Pretty soon she too had heard a variety of similar stories. "We all had pieces of the puzzle," she said.

Williams said the teacher who worked in her classroom before her said she had health problems while there and she didn't want to return to the room. But the teacher also noted that she knows there are rooms in the school with bigger problems -- moisture problems or smells that staff try to cover up or eliminate.

"I've gone to my building administrator and lodged my complaint. . . . That's what we've all been doing, and that's where it's been stopping," Williams said. "All I want is honest testing, a clean room and a healthy environment."

She said she worries about the children in the school. Williams said her own nephew has been going through a whole series of tests because he has been so ill since he began attending Lecanto Middle.

* * *

Anderson started talking to Williams and to other parents. She heard of moldy books taken from the school's media center and destroyed. Several parents reported that their children, who had previously suffered no major medical problems, began to show respiratory problems and allergic reactions while in school.

When Anderson filled out the transfer form for her son, she said she was told she could not list the health issue as her reason for seeking the transfer. Instead, she was told to cite a child care issue.

She questioned a school administrator and Rich Hilgert, coordinator of student services for the school district. School officials cannot talk about the individual case, but Hilgert said that, to approve a transfer based on a health concern, documentation would have to be provided.

He said he has never asked anyone to lie on a form. And he has never received any documentation of a health threat to students at Lecanto Middle.

"I had the result of his (William's) tests in my hand. They never asked for them. They never asked for the doctor's note," said Anderson, who had brought her father to the meeting as a witness.

Not only did school officials not ask for documentation, she said, but they told her that even with documentation they could not approve William's transfer for that reason.

Finally she agreed to list both reasons on the form.

Beth Wilkinson would like to move her 12-year-old daughter, Amanda Hensman, to another school. But since Wilkinson is legally blind and cannot drive, she can't get the girl to another bus stop.

"Amanda has asthma, but the problem since she started at this school has escalated," said Wilkinson, who has considered home schooling. "She is constantly sick. I get her healthy and send her back and she's sick again. . . . The doctor said maybe it's all in the school."

And for Amanda, there is no option to call her mother to come get her. She must stay at school until the bus comes for her. That means plenty of time in the school clinic.

Kat Navarro works as a volunteer at Lecanto Middle. She was recently out sick for two weeks and made sure she was healthy before returning to the school. "I wasn't in there for five minutes when some little kid looked up and me and said, "Miss Kat, are you crying?' "

Last week she lodged her complaints about the school both as a volunteer and a mother with two sixth-grade children who have had allergic reactions and an extreme number of illnesses this school year.

One of the boys "is so congested when he comes home that he doesn't want to do his homework," Navarro said. "The other child, he doesn't complain, but his eyes puff up."

She added, "It takes about five minutes to start getting congested in there."

Anderson knows not all children or adults are going to have a reaction to the molds. Her daughter Angela, who is also in the sixth grade, never had any health issues at Lecanto. She also transferred to Inverness Middle a few weeks after William went there.

But for those who do, the health consequences can be lasting and severe and so can the academic results, she said.

John Colasanti, a health and safety specialist with the school system, examined the room and found elevated levels of carbon dioxide. The levels were not dangerous, but they did indicate an air circulation problem. Outside, he found a clogged air vent, which was then cleaned.

Inside he found plants that could have harbored mold and moisture, and some problems with the thermostat. Later he called in GLE Associates Inc., the environmental consultant for the school district. That company also found the higher-than-normal levels of carbon dioxide and noted that some symptoms, such as headache or malaise, could result. But the levels were not high enough to cause concern.

The consultant also found 10 times more mold colonies inside the classroom than outside, an indicator that the mold was growing according to the standard described by the consultant. But they also concluded that the numbers were not out of line with what would be expected in a classroom.

Local health department officials referred the results of the study to their regional air quality expert, Jim Padgett.

He said he did not recall seeing the report but, upon hearing the results, he agreed that neither the carbon dioxide levels or the mold levels were particularly troublesome. He agreed with Colasanti's conclusion that the higher-than-normal carbon dioxide was a flag for some problem with the air circulation in the room, which had already been dealt with by the district.

"Air quality is one of those things that we just don't know everything we need to about," he said. "Still, I don't see anything or hear anything (from the report) that would raise any flags."

But Padgett acknowledged that even low levels of certain molds or contaminants in the air can still have a real impact to sensitive individuals. He also said that if other people continue to raise issues about illness in the school, that might also be a signal that the problem should get a closer look.

Anderson questions the GLE report findings. She had a mold contamination in her own house and did research to find out how it might be affecting her family. She said she is sure that is not what made William sick because the levels were far lower in her home than in the school.

She also said that the levels of contaminants found in the school were alone reason for officials to do more testing.

The independent consultant she hired to mitigate problems in her own home, EnviroHome Inc., reviewed the findings of the district's consultant and agreed that there was no emergency. They also concluded that more ventilation needed to be added to the room and that the mold levels inside compared to outside "should be further investigated."

The school's administrators have asked staff to come forward if they have had a health issue, but Colasanti said none have. If parents have concerns, he said they should contact him or the school.

He said he feels he has done all he can do at this point "unless I can get some other concerns so I can know a direction that we can go."

Anderson said she hopes parents will attend an informational program on mold contamination slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday at First United Methodist Church on County Road 581 in Inverness.

"I want the parents and the people to be asking if there has been a problem," Anderson said. "I want them to think about whether their children have been sicker" since going to the school.

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