EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 10, 2013

Air quality issues persist at Guilmette

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE – Nearly three years after a mold infestation shut the Guilmette School for seven months, state health inspectors say much of the building still suffers from poor ventilation and air quality, creating conditions that can spread mold and cause respiratory and other health problems.

In all, 59 of the 107 rooms tested by the Department of Public Health inspectors – including the cafeteria and library, a principal’s office and more than half the classrooms – had levels of carbon dioxide above the 600 parts per million that is the “preferred” maximum for public schools in Massachusetts.

Although the levels of carbon dioxide in the 59 rooms were not nearly high enough to pose a health threat on their own, they indicate that ventilation is poor enough to allow for “a buildup of common indoor pollutants” that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and can cause headaches, lethargy and difficulty breathing, the health inspectors said in a recently released report.

The inspectors, who visited the elementary and middle school on May 21 in response to a renewed outbreak of mold in a first-floor classroom, also warned that the air quality in the school could be worse than their results show because many of the rooms they tested were empty or nearly empty of students and staff or had their windows open, which can lower carbon dioxide readings.

“In many rooms, airflow from supply and exhaust vents was observed to be low or non-existent,” the inspectors said in their 67-page report, which was dated June 28 and provided to The Eagle-Tribune yesterday by Lawrence Teachers Union president Frank McLaughlin. “The library in particular was reported to have no operating mechanical ventilation at the time of the (inspection). Given that the library windows do not open, there was no source of fresh air for the library at the time of the assessment.”

The inspectors also found that some of the fans that provide auxiliary heating and filtration in most classrooms were deactivated, broken or blocked. They found water-stained wallboards and ceiling tiles, areas of poor drainage on the school’s roof, and a drain in a restroom that was installed above the level of the floor.

The report makes no mention of the level of mold in the school, which is nearing the end of a $7.5 million scrubbing and reconstruction that followed the mold infestation discovered in 2010. Mike Feeney, the director of the Department of Pubic Health’s Indoor Air Quality Program, who led the four-member team that inspected the school, could not be reached yesterday.

The inspectors recommended 40 short-term fixes at the school, including installing windows that open in the library, regrading restroom floors, installing weather-stripping on exterior doors and more carefully monitoring science and art projects, such as the unidentified project that is suspected in the renewed outbreak of mold that emptied an elementary school classroom for several weeks in the spring.

Among other, easier short-term fixes, the inspectors urged the school to ban air fresheners because of the volatile organic compounds they emit, put drip pans under plants and move refrigerators off carpeted floors.

In the long-term, the inspectors encouraged the school to complete the repairs to the HVAC system that caused the widespread outbreak of mold that shut the Guilmette School for most of the 2010-11 school year, forcing the relocation of 1,055 students and 150 staff. The building is nearing the end of a $7.5 million cleansing and reconstruction, but the air conditioning has not been turned on for longer than two years.

Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver who runs Lawrence’s public schools, could not be reached yesterday.

McLaughlin, the teachers union president, yesterday called on Riley to implement the recommendations in the state report.

“It’s a problem that remains unresolved,” McLaughlin said. “It’s shocking, to be honest, that they let it go this long. Now that have the report from the state, and the new receiver, let’s work together to get this fixed.”

Beyond the elevated carbon dioxide levels, the inspectors also found that relative humidity in the Guilmette School ranged from 58 to 74 percent, which mostly exceeds the “comfort range” recommended by the Department of Health of 40 to 60 percent.

Temperatures and the amount of particulate matter such as dust in the air were within the guidelines set by the state.

The state Department of Public Health sets a guideline of 800 parts per million of carbon dioxide in public buildings, it sets a “preferred” level of 600 parts per million in public schools because their younger populations are considered more sensitive to pollutants. At 800 parts per million, the department recommends “corrective measures,” including adjusting ventilation systems.