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Concerns Surface After Air-Quality Testing of Portable Classrooms at Washington Elementary

Certified hygienists recommend modifying or replacing ineffective and noisy HVAC systems and eliminating mold-causing, water-damaged areas

The indoor air quality testing done on Washington Elementary School’s portable classrooms is spurring more investigation and the possible replacement of HVAC systems in several classrooms.

Panacea Inc. was hired by the Santa Barbara School District after a parent advocacy group’s continued dissatisfaction with previous test results from 2005, 2006, twice in 2007, and 2008.

In March, certified industrial hygienists Mark Katchen and Hsin Chou tested five portable classrooms and two normal classrooms as controls at the school, 290 Lighthouse Road, and found that only one room met criteria for carbon dioxide. They said the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are underperforming and many don’t pull in enough outside air, even in nonportable classrooms. Some systems need to be modified and some may need to be replaced. Panacea also recommends eliminating water-damaged areas, of which there are many, “as soon as practical.”

There is also visible water accumulation on ground areas, which can grow mold and the like, bird nests near air intake areas, and visible mold, algae growth and water damage on multiple buildings. Water leaks resulted in mold and fungi growth, though the concentrations were relatively low.

Katchen and Chou said it shouldn’t be a health risk for most people, though those sensitive to mold could experience allergy-related symptoms. There are kinds of mold airborne indoors that weren’t detected outside, which “probably does tell us there’s some impact,” Chou said.

Mold was most concerning to members of the Parents for Excellence in Public Schools Indoor Air Quality Committee, who have pushed for the testing. David Shapiro said Panacea was not qualified to comment on impacts from the results and reiterated that mold poses a danger to student and staff health.

Molds considered toxic were found in portables including the library, even after district staff closed it in November because of health concerns and later reopened it, according to David Mills.

The library was tested with just two Panacea staffers in it and carbon dioxide readings were still far surpassing the criteria. Outside, there is mold stretching all around the building under the eaves, according to Chou.

Parents for Excellence in Public Schools asked board members to take the matter seriously and with some urgency. They were heard, and the board asked Facilities Director David Hetyonk to expedite the implementation process, saying next summer isn’t soon enough to replace HVAC systems.

All 15 portables were tested for sound, and only one is compliant with the less-than-45-decibel criteria for having the system on. Forty-five decibels is comparable to the humming of a refrigerator, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Hetyonk said staff members have already removed visible mold inside the classrooms and are looking to prevent water damage at all schools. Maintenance crews are removing exterior mold and algae, repairing roof leaks and replacing water-stained ceiling tiles.

Hetyonk said the best option for improving air flow and reducing noise is to replace the HVAC units, either on the roofs or on the ground, and the school board voted to hire Robert Robles Architect to start looking into it.

The contract will be funded from the elementary bond measure passed in November.

Formaldehyde levels, temperature and relative humidity were also tested and determined not to be an issue, according to Panacea’s report.

The district staff isn’t sure how much the implementation plan will cost, since the recommendations from the architect could be to retrofit classrooms or merely repair units. No other schools have had outcry over classroom air quality like Washington has, Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith said, but if other sites need remediation, he said the district will do it.

Click here to view the full air-quality report.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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