Archive for Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Air-quality concerns infiltrate two schools

January 17, 2001

Carpet has been replaced with tile on the floors of three Tonganoxie Elementary School classrooms, because of several students' health problems.

Carpeting was removed during the winter break in one classroom, and last weekend carpeting was pulled from two others. Fifth- and sixth-grade students attend classes in those rooms, which are part of a 12-room addition constructed in 1988.

And during spring break, school officials would like to remove carpet from several other rooms in that wing of the school. Next summer, they hope to pull carpet in more elementary school classrooms, and in several rooms at the junior high school.

For years, school officials have grappled with high humidity and carbon dioxide levels in that wing of the elementary school building, as well as at Tonganoxie Junior High School. Both buildings were constructed by R.D. Andersen, Topeka, and completed at the same time.

Mold and mildew grow on books and on the underside of desks in both buildings, according to Art Sorensen, the district's maintenance director.

"Both schools have had problems since two to three years after they were built," said Sorensen. who began working for the district at the time the two construction projects were under way.

"We fight it. We leave lights on. Mildew only grows in darkness. Then somebody calls and says we're spending tax money (by leaving lights on)."

Following complaints from staff members about air quality, air levels in the elementary school wing have been tested.

In 1999 and 2000 numerous tests were performed on the humidity and carbon dioxide levels in classrooms, as well as on carpeting and ceiling tiles. Results consistently have shown high humidity levels particularly at night and high carbon dioxide levels which seem to correlate with students returning to classrooms from recesses and lunch hours.

In the next week or two, an engineering firm will install a computer-operated system that constantly will monitor air levels in the three classrooms. As humidity increases, the system will react by pushing dry air into the classrooms.

Generally, humidity levels of 30 percent to 60 percent are considered acceptable, according to a report by a Southeast Kansas Educational Service Center in Girard. Levels in classrooms have exceeded 80 percent, Sorensen said.

"We just can't pull it out," he added.

Ceiling tiles have been replaced, dehumidifiers have been installed and air purifiers have been purchased. The air ducts have been cleaned, said Richard Erickson, superintendent of schools. Now, the district is attacking the carpeting.

"The carpet just hides a lot of dirt," he said. "It hides a lot of things."

In fact, reports show a variety of fungi have been growing in elementary school ceiling tiles and carpet.

Dust pulled from one classroom carpet showed nearly four times acceptable levels of fungi, according to reports that are available to the public from Erickson's office.

The service center, as well as a University of Kansas professor contacted by The Mirror, agree fungus can exacerbate health problems.

"Fungi can be an issue," said Jack Brown, a KU professor of molecular biosciences. "It's not that they're innocuous. They definitely can be a problem in a concentrated area, and especially if a person's immune system isn't up to par."

Erickson said he's hopeful that carpet can be replaced with tile in several more elementary school classrooms in the wing during spring break. If all nine cannot be completed then, they will have to wait until summer. In addition, he wants to replace carpet with tile in 12 classrooms on the north and west sides of the junior high school.

The cost of installing tile has been running about $2,200 a room, Sorensen said. And the price of the computerized air systems is about $1,500 a room. Plans call for installing three of those at the elementary school, Sorensen said.

The district spent about $25,000 this school year trying to address the problem.

"I would guess we're looking at another $90,000-plus," Erickson said.

Some of that money likely will be paid to the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, a nonprofit education cooperative that has helped the Tonganoxie district with air-quality testing.

Mitch Ricketts, safety and environmental compliance coordinator for the cooperative, said he's seeing similar problems in other school districts.

"Actually, it's become fairly common," he said. "There does seem to be an increasing awareness of moisture problems in schools."

Whether he's seeing more reports because there are more incidents or because people are more aware of air-quality concerns is unclear, he said.

Solving the problem in Tonganoxie schools is a multi-layered process.

"The last time I was up there, they had done a lot of work in the ventilation system," Ricketts said. "In the rooms they had done the work, the measurements were improved. These types of problems take a long time to resolve."

Concerns raised by parents of children at the elementary school have accelerated the district's plans, Erickson said.

"We want those kids to be healthy, and we want all of our kids to be healthy," he said.

After school last Friday, Midwest Carpet workers pulled the carpeting in Janet Burnett's sixth-grade classroom and Laurie Bottenfield's sixth-grade classroom. Turquoise tile was laid Saturday in Burnett's room, but not enough tile was available to complete the job in Bottenfield's room, so Midwest likely will return this weekend to complete the job, according to Finney Robbins, owner of the firm.

During winter break, Midwest also replaced carpet with turquoise- and cream-colored tile in Cindy Korb's fifth-grade classroom.

"We can tell a real big difference," Korb said. "It just feels cleaner and fresher."

For Mike McClellan, who teaches social studies at Tonganoxie Junior High School, the humidity problem has taken a toll on books. He's worried about students' health.

"The bottom line is that if we have a student come through with a severe allergy problem with this, there could be some problems," said McClellan, who's taught in the building for about eight years.

Some of his colleagues complain of headaches at the end of the day, upper respiratory ills, coughing and sinus headaches.

"The maintenance department is trying to deal with a problem that has everybody baffled," he said. "It was a problem to begin with because of the construction itself. Just because it's new, doesn't mean it's the best."

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