Sick Schools May Hold IAQ Remediation Opportunity

February 8, 2001
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GREENVILLE, SC — Mold and other indoor air quality (IAQ) problems that may sicken teachers and students can lead to sizable contracts for mechanical contractors, with projects sometimes in the multimillion-dollar range. Such concerns also suggest architects, designers, and contractors should be sure the hvac systems they specify and install don’t create problems once a new or remodeled school is occupied. They should be equally careful in any renovation and repairs to avoid creating further IAQ problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in its “Air Quality Tools for Schools” literature.

A 1995 General Accounting Office (GAO) report said that more than 50% of the country’s schools have poor ventilation and significant sources of pollution. Case in point: Buena Vista Elementary School in Greer, SC, part of the Greenville County School District. In 1999, symptoms of Sick-Building Syndrome and the resultant diagnosis resulted in a $7.7 million renovation project, $4.9 million of which was handled by Best Mechanical, headquartered in Seneca, SC.

The several-years-old building, as constructed, used the cavity between classroom ceilings and roof for a return air plenum, a design employed in several other schools built about the same time, according to Oby Lyles, the school district’s executive director of communications.



Several Firms Called In

AAA Environmental, Spartan-burg, SC, was invited to examine the school for the source of the problems. Forty of the school’s 50 teachers had become ill, according to AAA president Pamela Smith, and a local newspaper reported that students and faculty had long complained of health problems such as headaches, nosebleeds, and flu-like symptoms.

Another consultant had earlier suggested that dust mites were at least part of the problem. Carpeting in the school had been replaced with smooth-surface flooring.

John McNamara of AAA found that cellulose insulation in the ceiling cavity had gotten wet from a leaky roof, creating an ideal environment for mold growth. He discovered “four or five” molds, including Stachybotrys.

The mold problems, according to Bill Knight, director of energy management for the district, were worsened by an air conditioning system that couldn’t handle the excess humidity.

“We gutted the building and rebuilt it,” Knight said. Mold and contaminated insulation were removed, and hvac, plumbing, and electrical systems were replaced. The outside air supply now comes through a dedicated outside air unit. The remedial work involved not only Best Mechanical but also Azimuth Inc. of Charleston, SC, and other firms. The total project also involved renting portable classrooms while the work was going on.

“Buena Vista became a proving ground on how to address such problems,” Lyles said.



Other Schools Checked

The mold growth at Buena Vista covered “several thousand” square feet, Smith said. Smaller amounts were subsequently found at 14 other Greenville County schools, according to The Greenville News.

Sites of mold contamination included ceiling tiles and the undersides of blackboards, floors, and wallpaper. Now the district has an environmental team including maintenance personnel to watch for and identify such problems, said Knight, a registered engineer. When areas of concern are found, the district works with industrial hygienists to confirm their nature and cause.

For example, at Hillcrest High School in Simpsonville, mold was found on the fiberglass insulation of a four-pipe heating and cooling system. The school district employed Andrew Schauder, CIH (Certified Industrial Hygienist), Environmental Testing & Management Service, Mauldin, SC, to research the problem. The nine-year-old Hillcrest structure hadn’t had a problem until recently. The school’s maintenance staff had discovered the mold while changing filters. Mold was present on only the chilled-water and return lines, not on the hot-water side, Schauder said.

Both air supply and return systems were ducted, the pipes ran through the ceiling lay-in system, and when hot humid air above the ceiling hit the cold pipes, moisture condensed to create a mold-growing environment, he explained. His firm oversaw corrective work of removing and replacing insulation and then wrapping it with a moisture-proof barrier. The work was performed by NEO, Waynes-ville, NC.

Schauder said there are “lots of other schools” with similar problems, and they present ample opportunities for hvac contractors to become involved in their remediation.



Reno-Area Problem Less Severe

An outside contractor and district maintenance personnel were both used in remediating mold discovered at Katherine Dunn Elementary School in Sparks, NV, but the problem seems less extensive, at least to date, according to Tom Marshall, risk manager for the Washoe County School District.

Last February, quarter-size spots of Stachybotrys were found on the covering of sheet rock at the baseboard level in the principal’s office. The principal had been sick. A plumbing leak, evidently the result of pipe wear by untreated water, seemed to be the cause. The contractor used a negative air system during the cleaning of the wall cavity to prevent mold spores from spreading.

Later, additional testing at the same school found mold in a library room and in a custodial closet that had been converted to a teacher’s office. An industrial hygienist was used to analyze that problem. Some library books were contaminated, too. The books were removed and the closet was closed, but closer examination of the whole school will take place this summer. School officials have already checked evaporative coolers (which are effective in the dry Reno-area climate) and the entire hvac system at the school and found them free of mold.

Mold problems can be found in higher education, too. The new University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) library was to open last month after a year’s delay blamed on mold contamination.



EPA Offers Advice

Henry Slack, of the EPA Region 4 (offices in Atlanta) Indoor Air Program, says the potential for IAQ problems is a challenge. “In many school systems the maintenance is taken for granted, and administrators view mechanical systems and possible sources of air contamination like voting machines — they don’t want to spend money on them.”

If administrators or school system teams look at these areas in some detail, “it’s embarrassing,” he said. EPA recommended those school systems:

  • Appoint an IAQ team with a coordinator;
  • Send out a checklist for teachers and in-school officials listing signs of poor IAQ;
  • Do building walk-throughs watching for possible trouble; and
  • Fix whatever problems are found.
  • In San Francisco, Shelly Rosenblum, a member of the Indoor Environmental Team at EPA’s Region 9 headquarters, noted that the San Francisco School District passed an IAQ policy implementing a program that involves the district’s director of facilities management, school health officials, the teachers union, and the San Francisco Department of Health. Parents are also involved.

    “There certainly are opportunities for mechanical contractors to become involved in the remediation of problems as they are discovered,” Rosenblum said.

    The EPA cautions contractors and others “to remember four potential causes of indoor air problems during renovation and repairs” including:

  • Demolition that releases toxic materials or mold;
  • Construction dusts and fumes;
  • Designs that interfere with ventilation; and
  • Off-gassing from building materials and new products.
  • The EPA’s program is cosponsored by the National PTA, National Education Association, Council for American Private Education, Association of School Business Officials, American Federation of Teachers, and the American Lung Association. More information about the program is available at the EPA website, www.epa.gov/iaq/schools. Various kits and IAQ information are available free of charge by calling 800-438-4318.

    Publication date: 02/12/2001

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