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School's air under scrutiny

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

SHINNSTON -- An environmental team from the West Virginia Department of Education spent several hours Wednesday conducting air quality tests at Big Elm Elementary School.

The school is being tested based on a phone complaint to the state Bureau for Public Health about possible mold problems in the building. Some teachers and parents allege building conditions have made students and staff ill with allergies and other breathing problems.

"We've been here several times before for testing and haven't found anything distinguishable," said team leader Bill Elswick, executive director for the state's Office of School Facilities. "We've been asked again to look at the areas of the building where there are concerns."

The federal government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last tested the building in 2001.

The five-member team inspected filing cabinet contents, walls, books, computers, desks, ceiling tiles, air filters, the heating and cooling system and the exterior of the building for mold and moisture. They interviewed teachers and collected air quality samples in various classrooms, where teachers have found moisture in the past.

The test team carried small, handheld devices to measure humidity levels, temperature, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Readings were also taken outside the building.

No visible mold was present Wednesday, Elswick said. However, furniture and computers in some classrooms were cleaned with alcohol recently to eliminate mold, teachers said.

Air quality recorders will be placed in the school this week for further readings.

"We're going to leave some recording devices to take a snapshot for the next seven days, 24 hours a day," Elswick said. "The instruments read the humidity levels and tell us if we're getting outside air in."

Teacher Tammy Aragona showed the test team a piece of material from her classroom that she'd saved since the opening of school this year. The material was covered with a white, dusty substance.

"This is what we see when we come back every year," she said. "It's on our chairs and our wooden desktops, and they continue to say nothing is wrong."

Bill White from the West Virginia Education Association accompanied the group during the testing.

"The teachers just want to know what's here," White said. "They don't feel like they have a definitive answer."

The school board has done an excellent job of responding to the complaints and acting upon the recommendations from the indoor air studies, White said.

But parents and staff are worried problems still exist. Terri Mayle's daughter has already missed five days of school this year due to her allergy problems.

"She was fine over the summer, but when she came back she got a stuffy nose, sore throat and the allergies flared up," she said.

Mayle said she first noticed her daughter's allergies when her daughter started kindergarten, but attributed it to be a typical reaction when children share a small space.

Now, she isn't sure that's the case.

The air quality test results won't be available until next week. The test team will also examine the absenteeism rate at the school and compare it to others in the county and state before making a final report, Elswick said.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.

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