School Building Air Quality is Fast Becoming a Top Education Issue
The crisis began in February 1999 when an ailing student in the Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita, Calif., visited a local doctor. The doctor said blood tests revealed exposure to arsenic, formaldehyde, phenol and mold toxins that could have originated in a portable classroom. As parents panicked, the doctor quickly concluded that several hundred children had been exposed to dangerous chemicals.
A principal enlisted Neale, then a 2nd-grade teacher, to throw together an indoor air quality program. The school quickly began environmental testing and enlisted help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state health department. But community hysteria outpaced school action. Many parents accused the school of poisoning their children and covering up a horrible secret. They organized a class-action lawsuit against the northern Los Angeles County district and the portable building manufacturer.
The mass outcry continued unabated for more than a year. But by May 2000, the state health department had confirmed the school’s findings that no serious health threats existed and had criticized the doctor’s methodologies as erroneous and invalid. The lawsuit against the school district unraveled, and the district appeased some of the most irate parents by inviting them to join its new indoor air quality oversight committee. The committee initiated policies that eliminated all pets, plants and strong perfumes and required air filter changes five times a year.
“If we had had the program in place when all this started, I can almost guarantee that this never would have happened,” says Neale, now the district’s indoor air quality coordinator and a 5th-grade teacher. “It would never have gotten to the crisis point that it had. We would never have had to spend $600,000 to crawl out from this cloud that was following us. This totally took over the district office operations because everyone was fielding air quality calls. The media was there all the time; they were calling us all the time.”
Reprinted with the permission of the American Association of School Administrators. © AASA
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