New Fungus Study Says Pes Air Ok

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School officials deny allegations of a cover-up and cite the latest of six air quality studies conducted at Payson Elementary School to back their claim.

"There is no way we're covering anything up," Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said.

PES Principal Roy Sandoval was equally emphatic.

"If anybody thinks there's a cover-up then they know more than I do," Sandoval said. "Nobody is trying to hide (the studies). The last thing we want to do is hide them like a big conspiracy."

Among the latest charges to surface is that a PES student contracted Legionnaires' disease from a school drinking fountain, and that one of the studies found that Legionella premophilia, the bacterium that causes it, was present in the water at that fountain.

"I will tell you they tested for Legionella as a precautionary measure because a child had chronic lung problems and they found Legionella in her lungs," Sandoval said.

But both he and Weissenfels said that what was found in a single drinking fountain at the school is a completely different strain of the bacterium one that does not cause illness.

"We just got the report on Legionella and out of 40 spots they tested, there was some found in the water of one drinking fountain," Weissenfels said. "But they also said there's eight strains of Legionella and this is not the strain that caused the diseases that killed people back East."

According to the results of the Legionella bacterium sampling conducted by Health Effects Group, Inc., Aug. 22, "The Legionella bacteria results were below the detection level for the sampling method in all but one sample (a drinking fountain and water spout in room 117)."

The Arizona Department of Health also reviewed the findings, according to Weissenfels.

"They said this was not an infectious strain of Legionella and the amount that is there is extremely small," Weissenfels said. "But just for safety's sake just to be sure we're going to remove that water cooler."

Another charge that both Weissenfels and Sandoval deny is that the district is charging $75 for copies of the air quality studies on PES.

"I didn't know I was charging anybody to have this (information)," Weissenfels said. "Parents have asked and we've let them look at the whole thing. We've been more than willing to copy the studies and give them out. We're not trying to keep anything down."

The reports are available at the district office at 514 W. Wade Lane.

"They're big documents some of them are 100 pages long, and they're full of percentage data," he said. "Since the average person wants to look at one or two things, it's easiest if they go over there and look at them."

Another option is to call Joe Martin, director of support operations at PUSD for more information.

"I can talk to them quite a bit if they don't need the report," Martin said. "I can tell them what's in it and what courses of action we're taking."

The latest air quality study, conducted Aug. 26 and 27 by HEG, consisted of a visual inspection combined with air sampling of all classrooms, common areas, administrative areas and restrooms. Samples were also collected outdoors for comparison purposes.

With the exception of two classrooms, 113 and 114, spore levels were normal and acceptable. Only minor elevations were detected in rooms 113 and 114.

"General indoor air quality measurements of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, temperature and relative humidity indicated acceptable levels ... at the time of the survey," according to the report.

In addition to sanctioning six air quality studies at PES, the district hired two specialists to try to make sense of and draw some conclusions from all the information collected so far.

One of them, Dr. Kevin Wallace of Samaritan Occupational & Environmental Toxicology Services, wrote to Weissenfels Oct. 7 following a visit to Payson where he met with PES teachers and Payson Regional Medical Center employees. In the letter, Wallace, a medical toxicologist with experience in the effects of occupational exposure to chemicals and toxins, highlighted his conclusions and assessments:

Cleaning and other maintenance products used at PES contain "no chemical constituents listed for any of these products that would be expected to cause or significantly exacerbate allergic disease...."

"There is no convincing evidence to support clinically significant infectious or toxic exposure to indoor mold contamination at PES."

"The results of the indoor environmental evaluations at PES do not support exposure to mold and mold antigens that significantly departs from, or would be expected to add to that resulting from exposure to mold and mold antigens outside the work environment.

"The possibility that the health complaints among the affected PUSD employees may reflect allergic responses to commonly occurring indoor environmental allergens (e.g., cat and/or dust mite problems) cannot be excluded."

Weissenfels and Sandoval are perplexed by the continuing controversy surrounding PES.

"There are some people who really are sick, but every one of them has a prior history of the illness," Weissenfels said. "I recently got a letter from a parent who is moving here and doesn't want her kid in that school because of the newspaper article which was accurate based on what you had. And yet we have this study saying if you don't get it outside, you're not going to get it inside that building."

The district has spent $10,000 so far trying to come up with answers.

"We're not saying that there is or isn't a problem," Martin said. "We're trying to find out what it is to have one of the medical doctors tell us that there is a problem. So far they're telling us no. That doesn't mean somebody isn't allergic to a mold spore or something along those lines. So we're trying to get help in identifying what they suspect people are having a reaction to."

One part of the problem appears to be air circulation.

"We do think the quality of air flow is part of the problem and that's being fixed with the installation of new heating and air conditioning units to replace (18) dated evaporative coolers," Weissenfels said. Those units should be in place and operating in about two weeks.

"The experts have made some recommendations that we're starting to move on, even though their statement is those things probably aren't causing any real problems but you should address them," Weissenfels said. "It's kind of like you've got weeds in the yard but they're really not causing any real problems but you ought to go pull them out."

Built in 1987, PES, at 500 E. Rancho Road, has 24 classrooms, a kitchen, cafeteria, gym, library, office and several restrooms.

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