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September 16, 2001-School district battle sick-school syndrome

This school year finds students at one middle school in a new, temporary home: a renovated portion of a former town high school and community center. And, parents hope, a healthier place for the 400 students in the K-5 school. Other school communities may balk at having students learn in transient headquarters while a new school is built; but students, teachers, and parents aren't complaining. They did plenty of that last school year when dozens of students and teachers began having problems breathing and air quality tests showed the school was plagued by toxic mold. After heated debate, town officials took an unusual step and agreed to raze the school instead of trying to clean it up.

Some argued then - and still do - that it was too drastic a move, but parents were thrilled. "For years you could see the plaster hanging and every day more and more people seemed to be getting sick in the school," said PTA president Charlotte Leslie. "It's too bad it took something this drastic for something to finally get done, but we are grateful that the decision was made to build a new school." "The [last] school year was a tremendous hardship for everybody," added Marilyn Usdan, the middle school's former principal who has since retired. Many more communities may face the same tough choices.

In the past year, several Connecticut schools have been shut down because of toxic mold and other air quality issues. "Sick schools have become a serious problem around the country, and I think we are going to continue seeing it happen for a variety of reasons," said Martin A. Benassi, an environmental consultant who issued a report last summer at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, an affluent New Haven suburb. It stated that mold, including loose and moldy ceiling tiles, was still present in the school despite $3 million spent by the district to correct the problem.

Benassi said the school, which was rebuilt in 1995 over swampy wetlands, exhibited many of the classic symptoms of "sick-school syndrome," including poor ventilation, moldy tiles and carpets, and toxigenic, airborne fungi. A junior high school has also undergone air quality tests. Benassi and other specialists say the way new schools have been built over the past 30 years has contributed to the problem. Some have flat roofs, which are more vulnerable to leaking; others have used such materials as recessed carpets and wall board that have made the problem worse.

"The kinds of materials used in new air-tight school buildings - the glues, the adhesives, paints, and wall-to-wall carpets - are posing problems in schools and other buildings," he said. "It often happens when new wings are added to aging schools and when much-needed attention to maintenance in older schools is lacking." Students and parents have filed a flurry of lawsuits against the school district, which has filed suits against contractors accusing them of not properly designing and maintaining the ventilation. Parents, teachers, and legislators skeptical of promises from school officials that the problems will be fixed also have formed Leaders of Better Environment for Students and Teachers to push for effective cleanups.

Ironically, the toxic soil was discovered when soil tests were done on the site as part of a $19.5 million expansion and renovation project. "Once we discovered there was a problem in the soil under the school, we decided we could not take a chance that a future problem could arise," said Superintendent Alida Begina. Contaminants found during testing included lead and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a carcinogenic residue from burning.

The contaminated soil was removed and replaced by a clean layer so tests show the school is safe - for now, Begina said. The sick-school problem is a complex one, apparently caused by a combination of factors that vary depending on age, location, design, and how well a school is maintained, specialists say. The level of sensitivity to toxic materials also varies, with many people never developing symtoms, while others experience problems that include asthma and other respiratory ailments, said Leslie Balch, director of the Qunnipiack Valley Health District. She helps monitor the air quality at high schools and middle schools. "Because this [sick schools] has become a far more common problem, every school should have a program in place to routinely monitor moisture, humidity, ventilation, and mold," Balch said. "It may not eliminate problems entirely, but it will go a long way toward keeping the air quality in schools at optimum levels."

The problems at the school, which consists of three wings built in 1928, 1952, and 1973, cropped up nearly a year ago. Karen Scinto's son, then 10, was hospitalized for four days after suffering an acute asthma attack. He had never had asthma before. At the time, heavy rains leaked through a damaged roof that was being repaired. Within days after Scinto's son and another student were hospitalized, about 50 other students and teachers began exhibiting serious respiratory problems. Students were sent to other schools in the district for part of the last school year.

Even though her son graduated from the school last year, Scinto said she is "very pleased the school is being razed. I don't want other children to go through what my son and other students went through." "After seeing so many students and teachers suffer we hoped the school would be shut down," said Usdan. Town officials decided to do exactly that late last spring and to build a new $20 million school.

In all Sick Building Syndrome cases it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the incident in question, and to enable physicians or other expert witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries. If you or a loved one is a victim of injury as a result of exposure to toxic mold, call now at or CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT A CASE FORM. The initial consultation is free of charge, and if we agree to accept your case, we will work on a contingent fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if there is a monetary award or recovery of funds. Don't delay! You may have a valid claim and be entitled to compensation for your injuries, but a lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations expires.

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