March 18, 1937, was a day that many east Texans will never forget. It was the day "a generation died," according to one historian. An explosion ripped through the New London School in New London, Texas, leaving 298 children and 14 adults dead, and hundreds of others injured.

The school, built in 1934 for $1 million by the oil-rich community 120 miles east of Dallas, experienced a buildup of natural gas from a leak in a pipe in the boiler room. The school had tapped into "free" odorless gas from a nearby refinery to save $3,000 on its fuel heating bill. At the time, a lawsuit was brought against school board members in an attempt to lay the blame for the blast on someone. In the end, no one was held responsible.

In his fictional account of the tragedy, There Is A Wideness, author Mark McAllister states, "A court of inquiry had exonerated all school officials, and said that the explosion was the collective fault of average individuals, ignorant of or indifferent to the need for precautionary measures."

Fast Forward

Fortunately, there have been no similar tragedies in the 67 years since then. But the root cause of the problem still plagues a lot of school districts today. When faced with the growing problem of poor indoor air quality (IAQ), school districts are putting band-aids on the crisis instead of spending money to correct the problem and keep it from growing.

I'm not saying that anyone is to blame, or that anyone is ignorant of the need for precautionary measures. What is obvious to me is that school districts face constant economic pressures to keep up with the need for new facilities, technology, supplies, salaries, etc. Time and again, millage increases are rejected by voters.

The result is that badly needed upgrades to existing mechanical systems are put on hold until funding is available - if at all. Children are suffering from an alarming increase in cases of asthma and allergies, much of which can be directly attributed to the air they are breathing in school buildings.

Many of these buildings were designed in the mid-20th century. They were probably adequate for the time, but now many of them are in need of improvements. Materials inside the buildings (furniture, cleaning materials, and other chemicals) are damaging to the indoor environment.

On top of that, more students are attending schools that were not designed to accommodate increased enrollment. This addition of carbon dioxide emissions is starving the oxygen in the classrooms. More students means there is a need for more air changes per hour.

Is this an accident waiting to happen? No, it's been happening for years.

What You Can Do

Many HVAC contractors have service and maintenance agreements with school districts. Unfortunately, replacement is often not a part of the agreements because of funding and ignorance.

The next time you send service techs out on a residential or commercial call, ask them to leave behind something important: information on asthma, allergies, and how poor school IAQ exacerbates the problem.

This could help start a grass-roots campaign to raise the level of awareness about poor school IAQ.

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John Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1294, 248-362-0317 (fax), or

Publication date: 06/28/2004