Fungus Finally Gone From Payson Elementary


Yet another round of remediation and testing has been performed at Payson Elementary School to clear up some final potential problem areas.

"To be cautious, we went into four rooms that possibly had some mold growing in them, even though the air was tested and there was no problem," Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "(Mold) can grow on a wall, for example, and not necessarily affect the air."


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

The four rooms included three classrooms -- 112, 113 and 114 -- and the teacher's lounge. The work was performed during the recent Christmas break by O&M Environmental Remediation, Inc. of Phoenix.

"We brought in a company to actually tear out every bit of material that (harbored mold), put it back and retest it," Weissenfels said. "What they did was put in the best they could in the way of internal barriers to stop it. The retest shows, again, this is absolutely clear."

The problem at PES began two years ago, when a microbiological assessment detected the presence of such contaminants as Penicillium, Alternaria, Cladosporium, Fusarium, Rhizopus and Aspergillus Niger "virtually all over the school." While concentrations were judged not to be dangerous to human health, the assessment was ordered after a teacher and secretary reported asthma and allergy symptoms that got worse while in the building.

In addition to cleaning vents and ductwork throughout the school, remediation efforts were performed in the areas that showed the greatest concentrations of contaminants. Carpeting was replaced in the worst areas and drywall was replaced in a back storeroom.

When staff members continued to report symptoms, more air quality studies were performed. To date, 19 staff members have reported symptoms, and four employees have actually had to leave their positions with the school. One, former school secretary Nancy Carlson, was forced to resign.

"When I was in that school, I got bloody noses, headaches, and felt like I had fiberglass in my lungs," Carlson said. She has been diagnosed with occupational asthma that evolved into fibromyalgia, a rheumatic condition characterized by chronic muscular pain.

The study just completed was the seventh ordered by the district, and once again Weissenfels and PES principal Roy Sandoval are hopeful the school's air quality problems are over.

The latest study concludes that "fungal contamination is no longer present in rooms 112, 113, 114 and the teacher's lounge." It recommends immediate repair to any new spots of water intrusion.

Sandoval believes moisture from evaporative coolers has been a major contributing factor, but that drywall contamination resulted from moisture seeping through an exterior wall.

"The school is dug in four feet on that side, so moisture was able to seep through in places where the walls were not sealed properly," he said.

Weissenfels agreed.

"The reason the walls are that way is outside drainage, which means tearing up a heck of a lot of yard and concrete," he said. "It's fine for now, but we'll eventually move to do that to prevent it from coming back in the future. We need a longer term solution, and that means putting in a moisture barrier out there."

In the meantime, the school's 18 roof-mounted evaporative coolers have been replaced by air conditioning units, and the school has a new roof.

Weissenfels hopes the new units will solve another problem identified by experts -- inadequate air exchange.

"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," he said.

Sandoval says his teachers are already noticing an improvement in air quality.

Another issue surfaced last year when a strain of Legionella was discovered in a single drinking fountain at the school. Although it is a strain that does not cause illness, the entire water system was treated to eliminate its presence during the latest remediation.

Post-treatment tests showed the level of Legionella had dropped to within permissible limits. An additional sampling will be conducted in six months to ensure that no further contamination is filtering into the system.

"This is what we thought would be true (regarding the Legionella)," Weissenfels said. "But we sure wanted to know, because even if it was non-threatening it scared all of us.

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