Report on Agassiz health suggests changes

David Taber

SOUTH ST. AREA—A long-awaited state report on indoor air quality at Jamaica Plain’s Louis Agassiz Elementary School on Child Street, released last month, raises concerns about significant building maintenance issues that could be affecting student health, but does not describe conditions at the school as dire.

The state report did not draw a direct causal connection between conditions at the school and health complaints. Boston Public Schools (BPS) spokesperson Matthew Wilder said, “Parents sending their children to a school building every day want to make sure it is safe. We feel good in getting this report that it supports that.”

Wilder said BPS is hopeful that plans to replace the windows at the schools will improve conditions there. But there were enough issues raised in the report—including about the school’s heating and ventilation system and roof, which were replaced about a decade ago—for City Councilor Chuck Turner to renew his call for a comprehensive, long-term maintenance and rehab plan for the school.

Wilder told the Gazette the city is hopeful the window replacement project, slated to begin in November, “Will solve a lot of the problems that have been identified…We do believe the new windows will help a lot.” He said other recommendations from the report are being reviewed by the city.

Joe Mulligan from the city department of Capital Construction, told the Gazette last week that the city recently completed an investigation determining that shifting of the large concrete panels that make up the school’s exterior walls is not contributing to water infiltration into the school. Concerns about that possibility were brought up at a June City Council hearing.

“The [state] report didn’t highlight anything we feel we didn’t already know…We have a lot of talented people who can help us identify the work that needs to be done,” Wilder said.

A health investigation conducted as part of the state report included 15 participants. Wilder noted that none of them were students at the school, and the report says they were all “school employees who wished to share there information. It is unclear from the report if students were invited to participate.

The investigation’s conclusions indicate that “The symptoms reported among participants…are generally those most commonly experienced in buildings with less than optimal indoor air quality,” including allergies, headaches, sinus congestion and sore throats. “It is possible that dry air, the presence of dust, and moisture/mold in some areas may be exacerbating the symptoms in these patients.”

The state Department of Public Health (DPH), which conducted the study, did not respond to repeated Gazette requests for comment.

The report—conducted during the 2008-2009 school year in the winter and spring—did have some significant recommendations for improving air quality at the school. They included stepped-up maintenance and possible replacement of the school’s roof and heating ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC), as well as a comprehensive energy audit.

The energy audit recommendation was inspired in part by temperature readings in the buildings walls that indicate they are poorly insulated. The report recommends potentially “installing an interior wall with insulation over the existing classroom exterior walls” to improve the building’s thermal seal.

The state also found low temperatures in the areas around the school’s doors and windows.

Temperatures inside the building were not to far off from recommended levels, but the lack of insulation may be causing the heating system to run inefficiently, and causing condensation on HVAC pipes that could lead to mold growth in the walls, the report says. The HVAC system is a fan coil unit system, which runs hot and cool water through pipes in the school’s walls to facilitate heating and cooling.

The report explicitly recommends that the city “ensure proper integration [of potential wall improvement plans] with the new window systems planned for installation in 2009.”

The drainage system on the school’s roof was clogged when DPH officials surveyed it on April 22 of this year, the report says. The DPH observed “pooling water in a number of areas, including around clogged roof drains and areas lacking drainage…It appears attempts have been made to reseal/tape holes/tears in the roof; however some of the roof patches did not appear to be adhering,” the report said.

The report concludes that either the roof, or leaky plumbing is responsible for “[w]ater-damaged/missing ceiling tiles observed throughout the school, indicating leaks from either the roof or the plumbing system.”

Other water infiltration might be resulting from the schools location. “The area may have a high water table” resulting in water pooling against the building and filtering up through the foundation, the report says.

Both the roof and the HVAC system were rehabbed about a decade ago. At a June hearing of the City Council’s Education Committee on air quality concerns at the school, BPS officials said that work had contributed to major improvements in environmental conditions at the Agassiz.

The report also calls for operational and basic maintenance improvements at the school.

For one thing, it says the building’s fan coil unit drip pans did not appear to be getting cleaned regularly, and air filters were not properly installed in many of the school’s air vents.

And there has apparently been a problem with rodent infestation at the school. The report lists a number of recommendations to deal with that, including making sure holes in the walls are patched and encouraging teachers and staffers to avoid eating at their work stations.

Responding to the report, Turner renewed his call for a comprehensive, long-term plan for school maintenance before the school’s windows are replaced. “A comprehensive plan is what we needed all along,” he said.

Turner first called for a long-term plan for the Agassiz at an early summer public hearing about air quality conditions at the school. At that hearing, about a half-dozen teachers and students complained of allergy symptoms and respiratory problems they believed were caused by problems with the school’s air-quality.

He noted that there were some glaring differences between the reports findings and testimony offered by city officials at the June hearing.

He said that city and state officials have met to review the report, but said he has been in touch with City Councilor John Connolly—who heads the Council’s Education Committee—about reconvening that hearing to try to push the city to come up with a comprehensive plan for school improvements.

Neither Connolly nor local City Councilor John Tobin, both of whom previously told the Gazette they thought the building might have to be shut down, responded to Gazette requests for comment for this article.

“From the standpoint of the state, [the air filtration system] was poorly engineered and maintained. It was identified as a major problem. But [the city] didn’t even note that as an issue” at the June hearing, Turner said.

“The school department also said there was not a problem with the roof” at the June hearing, Turner said. But the state reported serious concerns about the Agassiz’s roof.

Tolle Graham, director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health’s (MassCOSH) Healthy Schools Initiative, told the Gazette that one issue that has made tracking maintenance at schools tricky is that BPS handles some maintenance and repair issues, but Public Facilities—the city department that oversees Capital Construction—handles bigger-ticket items.

Boston’s Chief of Basic City Services Michael Galvin, who oversees Public Facilities, pointed to the same issue speaking to the Gazette. “Capital Construction is in and out” of the process, he said.

That conversation was a Gazette conference call with Galvin and Mulligan from Capital Construction. Mulligan told the Gazette another report, commissioned by the city, indicates that a previously suspected problem with the school does not exist. The exterior walls of the school do not appear to be causing any additional water infiltration, he said.

In June, Mulligan told the Gazette that the large, prefabricated concrete panels that make up the Agassiz’s exterior walls appear to have “settled, shifted and separated.”

It was then suspected that the shifting was causing water infiltration on the east side of the building. But the city’s assessment, still in draft form when the Gazette recently spoke to Mulligan last week, indicated that “the infiltration was mostly around the windows,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan said there is insulation under the panels. When asked about the state’s findings regarding the insulation, he said it “might not be up to current thermal code.

Graham told the Gazette that DPH Indoor Air Quality Program head Michael Feeny has presented the state’s findings to teachers at the Agassiz on a few occasions. “He has been very good at explaining things in a thoughtful non-blaming kind of way,” she said. “He gave them reminders about things they themselves could do,” like making sure not to block air vents and not leave food out. He also gave teachers “a chance to ask questions and get [satisfying] answers” on issues that have been concerns for years, she said.

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