Mold, Health Concerns Persist At Payson Elementary

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School district officials are still looking for a solution to a mystery plaguing Payson Elementary School.

There have been five air quality studies and a growing number of employees are reporting respiratory ailments,

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Stacks of roofing await the arrival of new air conditioning units at Payson Elementary School. They will replace 18 roof-mounted evaporative coolers suspected of contributing to a continuing air-quality problem at the school.

"We just got back the most recent study, and it says the same things the others did that there was not a high incidence of any kind of mold," said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels. "But there are still people coming up with respiratory symptoms, so we stayed rather concerned about (the air quality in PES)."

Nineteen staff members have reported symptoms, and four employees have actually had to leave their positions with the school, including Nancy Carlson, a Mesa del Caballo resident and the school's secretary for many years.

"I really don't know what's causing it," Carlson said. "I just know that I'm very sick when I'm in there, and I've lost my job after 20 years."

The problem actually came to light two years ago when several school employees reported allergy symptoms that got worse while in the building.

A microbiological assessment performed in December 2000, detected the presence of such contaminants as Penicillium, Alternaria, Cladosporium, Fusarium, Rhizopus and Aspergillus Niger "virtually all over the school."

Carlson takes issue with one of the study's conclusions that concentrations were not dangerous to human health.

"When I was in that school I got bloody noses, headaches, and felt like I had fiberglass in my lungs," she said.

The doctors Carlson has seen agree. She has been diagnosed with occupational asthma that evolved into fibromyalgia, a rheumatic condition characterized by chronic muscular pain.

After the initial study turned up the problem, recommended remediation work was performed at the school. Vents and ductwork were cleaned; carpeting was replaced in the worst areas the principal's office, the main office and workroom, and one classroom and drywall was replaced in a back storeroom. A subsequent microbiological assessment conducted in March 2001, indicated that these remediation efforts reduced microbiological contaminants significantly.

But when employees continued to experience respiratory problems while at the school, more studies were ordered.

"We have done five separate studies," PES Principal Roy Sandoval said. "We have studied that place exhaustively, including interviewing everybody who's been affected by the mold who desired to be interviewed."

With the studies pointing out that the air quality in some parts of the school is now better than outside air, the district hired two specialists to try to make sense of and draw some conclusions from all the information that had been collected.

"One is a toxicologist from Phoenix who has dealt with this kind of stuff in public buildings all over the country, and the other is an industrial hygienist from Tucson," Weissenfels said. "We met with them a couple times, and their feeling from studying all these reports from the technical side is that ... there is not a mold problem down there ... that if people aren't sick from walking outside, they shouldn't be sick from being inside."

But the consultants did come up with a new theory inadequate fresh air exchange at PES.

"Their conclusion is that there is an issue with indoor air quality," Weissenfels said. "Probably the amount of fresh returned-type air is not adequate, and in an adult who has a tendency toward some respiratory problems anyhow, it exacerbates it."

The superintendent hopes that replacing the school's evaporative cooling system with air conditioning a process currently under way will improve air circulation. What mold remains will also be cleaned up.

"Even though it wasn't listed as a major problem, we are going to be removing the mold," he said. "It means tearing out walls and so on."

Built in 1987, PES has 24 classrooms, a kitchen, cafeteria, gym, library, office and several restrooms. The new air conditioning units will replace 18 roof-mounted evaporative coolers.

Because he's right smack in the middle of the issue, Sandoval is frustrated. But he can also see both sides.

The real issue, according to Sandoval, is finding the money to do what needs to be done. While the state school facilities board is paying for the new air conditioning units, neither it nor the school's insurance carrier will pick up the remediation tab.

"If you tear up carpeting and replace it, you're talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars," Sandoval said. "If you re-engineer the venting system you're talking a couple hundred thousand dollars. If you call in a remediation company, you're talking a quarter of a million dollars.

"Schools don't have that kind of money floating around, and insurance companies are no longer paying for any kind of mold issue. That's a national thing."

In the meantime, is the school safe for staff and students?

"Do I think it's safe? Yes. Do I think people will still be susceptible to allergies? Yes."

But he also knows the problem is not going to go away overnight.

"I want that place spotless," Sandoval said. "I want everybody to feel great every day. But the district only has so many resources."

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