Mold Attacks Middle School

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Rim Country Middle School is the latest district facility to be visited by mold.

In a letter sent home to parents last Friday, RCMS Principal Frank Larby revealed that air quality testing conducted during spring break showed that both the sixth-grade building and the music/band room have elevated levels of microbiological allergens or mold.

"Just before spring break a teacher reported to Mr. Larby that she thought there was a possibility of mold in the corner of her room in the sixth-grade building," Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "We ordered up a study of the sixth-grade building and the music room out in the gym area."

The sixth-grade building, constructed in the 1970s, is the oldest on the middle school campus. The band room also was tested because of a perennially leaky roof.

"We were suspicious of the band room because that thing has historically leaked," Joe Martin, director of support operations, said.

Moisture is a leading factor in the occurrence of microbiological contamination. All the buildings at RCMS except the eighth-grade building have evaporative coolers.

Several different contaminants were found in the sixth-grade building and band room.

"We tested the rooms themselves and also all of the ductwork," Weissenfels said. "What we found is evidence of airborne penicillium, some smuts, which is a fungus, and a little bit of stachybotrys. They were somewhat generalized throughout the areas tested."

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.

So far, no employees or students have become ill from the contamination. When a similar infestation recently occurred at Payson Elementary School, some 19 staff members reported symptoms, and four employees actually had to leave their positions with the school.

"The feeling (from the test results) was that the risk to health was very minimal," Weissenfels said.

The remaining areas of the RCMS campus -- the seventh- and eighth-grade buildings and the gym -- were tested Tuesday by Jerry Denton, director of environmental programs for Tempe-based Allen Environmental Services. Denton also conducted the tests over spring break at RCMS.

"We decided if it's there we better take a look at all the buildings," Weissenfels said. "It takes almost two weeks to get results back because they have to grow them in a culture medium."

Since the eighth-grade building is the newest and is air conditioned, school officials are hopeful that it is clean. They are not so optimistic about the seventh-grade building.

"Good circulation helps to minimize airborne contamination," Weissenfels said. "The seventh-grade building probably has the poorest circulation because you just have a door at either end."

But as he was collecting air samples in the seventh-grade building, Denton said he did not believe the contamination there was as serious as in the buildings previously tested.

Once all the testing has been completed, a contractor will be selected to clean up the problem.

"We had one company in last week that does remediation type work," Weissenfels said. "We sat down and determined how to proceed from this point. The first step is to get the results from the seventh- and eighth-grade buildings to see how much of a problem we have. The next thing is to come up with a plan of action that we can get started on right away. No. 1, we'll have all the ductwork cleaned. No. 2, there will be a ‘clean-down' of all the rooms."

Some insulation and ceiling tiles also will be replaced and roofs will be patched in some places, Weissenfels said.

An overriding concern is to accomplish the work without disrupting the educational process.

"The paperwork has to get done and they have to get a large enough crew to get in there so we can hopefully not interrupt school," Weissenfels said.

Some of the work will be done this summer when school is out, but the initial plan is to get started as soon as possible.

"We hope to do a wipe-down of surfaces in the sixth-grade building and the band room before school lets out, and also clean the ductwork in both areas before we turn the swamp coolers on," Larby said.

Testing has so far cost the district almost $5,000, and the cleanup will cost much more.

"One of our challenges will be financing," Weissenfels said. "We'll put this together when we get all the reports in and apply to the School Facilities Board."

When a similar cleanup was undertaken at PES, the School Facilities Board, a state agency, assumed a major part of the cost.

Problems with air quality caused by contaminants like molds, mildew, and fungi have only become an issue in recent years, thanks in part to more sophisticated testing procedures. Besides the contamination at PES, the school district has investigated and dealt with problems at Julia Randall Elementary School and Payson High School over the past few years.

Allen Environmental Services also was involved in the testing that took place at PES.

The school district recommends that parents of children who display symptoms of an allergy contact their family physician.

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