A survey performed over Christmas vacation at Payson Elementary School confirmed the presence of mold and fungi spores "virtually all over the school," but concentrations are far from dangerous to human health, according to Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels.
The $6,000 survey, which involved incubating air and wipe samples from the school in a laboratory, was performed by Allen Environmental Services of Tempe after a teacher and secretary reported asthma and allergy symptoms that got worse while in the building. "When that happened, I thought we better get it checked out," PES Principal Roy Sandoval said.
"They compared the inside with the outside air, which is usually about 200 spores per cubic meter. Inside we ranged from 200 to 1200," he said. "To be really dangerous, you'd be looking at 12,000."
According to the report issued by the survey company, "results of the wipe samples collected indicated that elevated levels of microbiological contamination exists in the evaporative coolers, heating units, carpet and all associated duct work. In addition, elevated levels ... of microbiological contamination was detected in all 10 ambient air samples within the structure.
"Contaminants include Penicillium, Alternaria, Cladosporium, Fusarium, Rhizopus and Aspergillus Niger."
Weissenfels cautioned parents not to be alarmed by the scientific names of the contaminants. "The spores from these plants are common in the air we breathe daily at home or on the street," he said.
While Weissenfels said he was relieved that the study showed the problem was not "real serious, it can only grow. We wanted to find out what we have and then deal with it and minimize it the best we can."
The superintendent also said the invisible microorganisms found in PES "are very common with swamp coolers. It would have to be 100 times worse to be considered a crisis."
Dr. Simran Galhotra, a local pulmonary specialist, examined the study and discussed the situation with PES teachers Friday morning.
"There are many different species of fungi and mold that have been found in the air of various rooms in this school, and staff or children who have a tendency to have allergies may come down with illnesses as a result," said Galhotra, who has a daughter in the first grade at the school.
Treatment recommended in the report includes retrofitting existing evaporative coolers to incorporate clean machine technology that allows the water to be changed every eight hours, decontaminating all duct work, upgrading filters, replacing all ceiling tile and carpeting, coating specific block walls with a water sealant, and replacing some drywall.
At this point the district's insurance company is refusing to pay for the cleanup.
"If they continue to refuse to pay, we will put them in touch with the Students First folks," the superintendent said. Students First is a program set up by the state legislature to fund the improvement of facilities, remodels and updates.
Weissenfels said treatment will begin as soon as possible.