Questions remain about Agassiz Rx

July 24, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

City plans fixes; mold fears linger

Is there mold at the Agassiz School? Is it causing health problems reported by some teachers? Why is en-rollment only at half capacity? After spending millions correcting problems in the mid-1990s is worth it to keep working on it?

More questions were raised than answered at a June 25 hearing of the Boston City Council’s Committee on Education, held at the Agassiz Elementary School at 20 Child St. on the last day of the 2008-2009 school year.

A handful of teachers and two students complained of headaches, sinus infections, sore throats, rashes and other symptoms they said are related to mold and poor air quality at the school. According to BPS officials, though, there is no hard evidence connecting those health complaints to the school building’s air.

The hearing was attended by about 60 teachers, administrators, janitors, students and parents as well as public health advocates and city officials. It took place in the school auditorium, which was permeated with a damp, musty smell.

It is clear from testimony from city officials at the hearing and comments in follow-up interviews that there are problems with the school, and that the city is trying to address them.

A window replacement project—estimated to cost $850,000—is currently out for bid, Joe Mulligan, deputy director of Boston’s Department of Capital Construction, told the Gazette.

“There is some moisture infiltration,” particularly during rainstorms, “and this will remedy that,” he said.

Additionally, he said, previous investigations indicate that the school’s exterior walls may need mainte-nance. The walls are large prefabricated concrete panels, and it appears that, particularly on the east side of the building, they have “settled, shifted and separated” from each other, he said. The wall-shifting is the suspected culprit for water infiltration in the cafeteria, gym and auditorium as well as a basement chemistry lab on the east side of the building.

But at the hearing, Boston Public Schools officials steadfastly denied that there was any evidence that the air at the Agassiz is unsafe to breathe.

Data from an independent study of the school’s air quality being conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Health was not available in time for the meeting and was still not available by the time the Gazette went to press.

Rob Roy, BPS’s director of facilities, said air circulation in the building is measured constantly with sensors that measure carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels. Carbon dioxide levels in the school are regularly within “the 800 to 1,000 parts-per-million ballpark”—indicating that oxygen is finding its way into the school from the outside, he said.

He said regular mold testing—conducted bi-annually at all BPS school buildings—indicate that levels are not significantly different from “ambient levels” in outdoor air.

A fact sheet issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—available at www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/sbs.html—cites poor air circulation as a cause of sick building-related health com-plaints. It also says bacteria, molds, pollen and viruses allowed to grow in stagnant water can lead to physical symptoms including “cough, chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches and..mucous membrane irritation.” Inhaling mold spores can also trigger an asthma attack, according to the EPA web site.

In the indoor air quality fact sheet, the EPA pans air quality testing in most cases, saying: “Contami-nant concentration levels rarely exceed existing standards and guidelines even when occupants continue to report health complaints…[A]ny sampling strategy should be based on a comprehensive understanding of how the building operates and the nature of the complaints.”

A handful of teachers and two students testified at the hearing that they had experienced health issues they believe are related to air-quality at the school.

Pam Winters, a long-time teacher at the school, said at the hearing, “The quality of the air in the school is still bad,” 10 years after the city spent of millions of dollars installing a new roof and in-stalling new heating and cooling systems to replace rooftop units that often allowed water to enter the building.

Michael McLaughlin, the elementary schools field representative for the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), of-fered testimony that the BTU had hired a consultant to perform an independent study of air-quality at the school. That study indicated that while there were elevated levels of mold, there was “no egregious mold,” he said.

McLaughlin is concerned, he said, that water seeping into the walls over the years might have created a fertile environment for mold.

He also said interviews with teachers by conducted by the consultants indicated, “There is definitely something going on,” But the study did not determine what it was.

BTU spokesperson Steven Crawford did not respond to Gazette requests for comment on or access to the study. He told the Gazette the union is not a party to the Agassiz teachers’ current complaints.

Mary Mulvey-Jacobsen who has worked on issues around “sick buildings” for close to the last decade—and before that was an aide to former City Councilor Maura Hennigan, who advocated for the last round of im-provements at the Aggasiz—said at the hearing that, “It makes no sense that there is no mold and all this water infiltration.”

Another advocate—Tolle Graham, Healthy Schools Coordinator at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupa-tional Safety and Health (MassCOSH)—told the Gazette that testing might not be that useful. “Mold testing is where it gets really, really tricky. Independent consultants and environmental technicians say the best thing to do [if you suspect mold] is just get rid of the source of moisture….you could swipe three sur-faces and mold could be hiding under the floor.”

In her testimony and speaking to the Gazette, Graham said the windows had been identified as a problem at the school in the last round of maintenance close to a decade ago. “To wait 10 years to replace the windows even though you knew they were a problem seems to me very irresponsible,” she said at the hearing.

For his part, City Councilor John Tobin—co-sponsor of the hearing with City Councilor Chuck Turner—told the Gazette he was left wanting more information after the hearing.

“I wish more teachers would have testified,” he said, noting that he had heard complaints from multiple sources.

Tobin and others have speculated that concerns about air quality at the school are part of the reason only around half of the Aggasiz’s about 900 seats are filled.

At the hearing BPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar denied that a direct connection could be drawn between environmental conditions at the Agassiz and enrollment. He did not elaborate beyond saying “I don’t think there is any evidence indicating that [individual enrollment decisions have to do with] anything we are discussing here today.”

A few students testified about experiencing health problems at the hearing, and that made at least one teacher uncomfortable. She said the testimony the students delivers was written in a classroom taught by a teacher who was involved in air-quality advocacy at the school.

“Fight the battle for better air quality and better schools, but please do not use children as pawns,” she said.

The hearing ended with a recess, and councilors said they plan to reconvene in the fall to review state DPH data and gather more testimony.

Despite the inconclusive evidence, City Councilor John Connolly, who heads the education committee, told the Gazette he believes there are serious problems at the school.

“All it says to me is that [BPS has] not been able to put their finger on what’s wrong,” he said.

Both Connolly and Tobin said they are still open to the idea of abandoning the current Agassiz building.

“My gut tells me a new structure or a new location would be ideal,” Connolly told the Gazette. “We have invested a lot of time and a lot of money trying to improve the school, but for whatever reason nothing seems to be improving, and we can’t figure out why.”

The hearing was a follow up to an April City Council hearing about air quality in schools throughout the BPS system. At the April hearing, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is running for mayor, called “for a comprehensive tracking system that simultaneously shows the audit results with corresponding student asthma rates so that accurate assessments can be made and budget priorities can be assigned to those repair needs posing the greatest risk to student health,” according to press materials.

Flaherty reiterated that call at the recent hearing.

Connolly told the Gazette that he believes maintaining “sick” buildings will become an increasingly im-portant city issue in the future.

“The movement around greening buildings and retrofitting them will probably call more attention to it in the future,” he said. “And with the passage of time old buildings are just going to get sicker. Hopefully there will be a big movement to retrofit and green and clean structures.”