Agassiz report coming soon

September 11, 2009
By

David Taber

Web Exclusive

SOUTH ST. AREA—As students head back to school this week, long-standing questions remain about the air quality at the Louis Agassiz Elementary School on Child Street, but elected officials pushing to resolve the issues say progress is being made.

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) plans to release a study on the school’s air quality this month.

In a recent interview, City Councilor Chuck Turner told the Gazette that since a June 25 City Council hearing on conditions at the school, “I think one really positive thing is there has been a positive working relationship between a number of parties that need to be working together.”

That includes Boston Public Schools and other city departments, the City Council, public health advocates and the DPH, Turner said.

In a recent Gazette interview, Mayor Thomas Menino said the City conducts regular air quality tests at the school, “We check all those buildings periodically,” he said, adding that he is not overly concerned about issues there.

Menino also noted that the city plans to undertake a major window replacement project at the school this year.

At the early-summer city council hearing, about a half-dozen teachers and students testified that they believe the schools air quality is causing adverse health effects, including headaches, sinus infections and potentially exacerbating asthma, they said.

Turner and others have noted that the Agassiz enrollment is regularly about half of its around 900-seat capacity, suggesting that there is a perception among parents that the school is not a safe environment.

At the June hearing, school officials said there was no correlation between enrollment at the Agassiz and health issues.

School and city officials said at the hearing they were taking steps to remedy some identified problems with the school building—including replacing leaky windows. But a state Department of Public Health (DPH) report on conditions at the school was not yet available and no data directly linking the school’s air quality to health concerns was available.

As of last week, the state report was still not available. “There are a number of different components that go into these studies—indoor air testing, reviews of medical records. There are a number of ways it can be delayed…We are aware it is a highly anticipated report and it is a high priority for us to complete it,” DPH spokesperson John Jacob told the Gazette.

Earlier this summer, at a forum sponsored by the new group Jamaica Plain Progressives, citywide At-Large City Councilor John Connolly—who is running for reelection—said he hoped the state report will provide some answers. “’Inconclusive,’ in my mind, isn’t good enough to keep the Agassiz the way it is,” he said. “When I go to the Agassiz, I am deeply troubled…It is dirty. The air feels stale…I don’t think it was a psychosomatic reaction.”

Turner told the Gazette he met with DPH and city officials in August. His impression, he said, is that the state department will come out with a thorough report establishing links between school conditions and health complaints and offering independent recommendations on how to fix the building.

From what he knows of the DPH study, Turner said, “There is enough data coming from teachers and students that the state is able to do an analysis.”

Both Turner and local City Councilor John Tobin—co-sponsors of the City Council resolution calling for the June hearing—said they expect the state report by the end of September.

City and state officials “have agreed to sit down and discuss the recommendations,” Turner said. Connolly, who heads the councils committee on Environment and Health, will also reconvene the City Council hearing on the matter to review the recommendations.

At the June hearing, and in Gazette interviews, city officials said they are also planning to look into the condition of the wall on the east side of the building. The large concrete panels that make up that wall have shifted and may be allowing water to infiltrate the building.

That might turn out to be a key issue, Turner said, noting that it appears a number of the teachers complaining work on that side of the building.

The city has been doing yearly air-quality testing since 2002, Turner said. That policy was put in place after a City Council Ordinance proposed by former JP city Councilor Maura Hennigan calling for bi-annual testing was passed in the 1990s. Hennigan also played a crucial role in securing millions of dollars for a previous round of repairs at the Agassiz in the 1990s.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency web site simply testing the air-quality in buildings where there are suspected issues is not an adequate strategy. “Contaminant concentration levels rarely exceed existing standards and guidelines even when occupants continue to report health complaints,” the EPA web site says. It recommends “a comprehensive understanding of how the building operates and the nature of the complaints.”

This spring, after a City Council hearing focused on air-quality at public school facilities in general, At-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is running for mayor, proposed that the city’s annual testing reports be correlated with information about asthma rates at the schools.

Flaherty did not return Gazette phone calls for this article.

Turner said he thought Flaherty’s idea was a “strong proposal,” adding that the city’s Healthy Schools Task Force, an advocacy group that works with BPS on facility issues, has put forward a similar proposal.

Turner said he is hopeful that the issues at the Agassiz will be resolved soon so the city can start focusing on other school buildings. “The dilemma we face is a shortness of funding,” he said. The Healthy Schools Task Force has estimated that fixing all of the identified problems at school buildings across the city will cost about $500 million. Citywide, “We have about $30 million to $40 million we can invest, he said.

John Ruch contributed to this article.

Language was added to the last paragraph of the web version of this article to clarify that the $500 million figure cited refers to citywide school rennovations and not to the Agassiz School specifically.

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