A recent investigative report on CNN focused on a sensitive topic – could schools be making our kids sick? One of the children in the report, a third grader from Connecticut named Matthew, developed a series of worsening respiratory symptoms through the 2010-11 school year. What started with lethargy, headaches, a persistent cough and respiratory infections progressed into pneumonia and a sinus infection so severe that it required hospitalization.
Matthew missed 53 days of school that year, but he seemed to miraculously recover when summer vacation started. Within three weeks of starting school later that year, Matthew missed 10 days of school with a respiratory infection. Matthew is now being home-schooled by his mother and is doing fine. Testing at the school found elevated levels of mold in the gym/cafeteria and two other areas. The school board spent $16,000 cleaning the school and is considering whether to close the school temporarily to replace a leaking roof.
CNN states that figures are hard to come by, but studies estimate that a third or more of U.S. schools have mold or other indoor air quality issues serious enough to cause respiratory issues like asthma in students and teachers. Doctors who treat children with asthma say that the medications students take for asthma, allergies and sinus infections, can make it harder for them to do their best work.
Just how bad is the air in our schools? Research published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology in late 2011 found that the level of living mold in the air of over 200 classrooms exceeded an established standard in 33% of classrooms tested. Children in the rooms with abnormal mold counts experienced more stuffy noses, coughs and infections than children in rooms with normal mold counts. The scientists who conducted the study recommended that schools be routinely tested and evaluated for airborne mold.
I used to teach in a state-owned school building that had a roof leak for years. There was no money to repair the roof, so facilities placed a dish pan with a garden hose leading to a bucket on the floor that faculty were expected to empty out when full. I remember the musty smell in that room and have often wondered what was growing above the ceiling – it certainly could not have been good.
So what is going on here? Our firm has been engaged to test the air in numerous schools, and it is unfair to imply that all schools are poorly maintained, with mold growing everywhere. In fact, we have run to the defense of many administrators, who make every effort to fix the leaks and other environmental issues in their buildings using the scant resources that are available.
Since I have doubts that there will never be enough money to rid our schools of mold hazards, my advice to parents is to be observant. Does your child stay sick while school is in session, and get better during breaks? Are other parents experiencing the same problem with their children? Have you observed moisture problems in the school? If you are quite certain there is an issue that is going unnoticed, let the administration know about your concerns for the health of the children and teachers. The decision to remove your child from the school may become an easy one if nothing can be done to fix the problem and your child continues to be unhealthy.