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  • Writer's pictureCorey Provencal

Toxic schools: Grand jury laid out mold problem; lawmakers didn’t act

In 2003, a grand jury blasted the Broward County school system for taking too long to get rid of mold in classrooms and failing to repair leaky roofs and faulty air conditioners.

The panel outlined its concerns in a 44-page report, strongly recommending changes the state of Florida needed to make to force school districts to improve indoor-air quality while underscoring that children were especially vulnerable to the potentially harmful effects of mold.

Although Broward schools have since spent millions of dollars trying to fix its problems, the more sweeping statewide grand jury recommendations have been largely ignored.

A handful of South Florida lawmakers introduced bills in 2004 that would have required schools to aggressively monitor and address mold problems and even file progress reports with the state.

But the legislation never went anywhere. A Senate analyst pointed out that repairs would be expensive and Florida would be setting itself up for lawsuits if it identified its air-quality problems.

So, today, there still are no statewide rules in Florida governing how public schools should monitor, detect and handle air-quality problems in one of the hottest, most humid states in the country.

And years after the grand jury report, Florida schools continue to battle chronic mold and water-intrusion problems, according to an Orlando Sentinel investigation.

Wolfgang Halbig, a former risk manager for Lake County schools who is now a school-safety consultant, argues that if the Florida Legislature does not make districts fix mold problems, they will get worse.

The situation, he warned, is already being exacerbated by districts’ attempts to save money by raising the temperature in schools and shutting off the air conditioning in at least some portable classrooms at night, on weekends and during kids’ winter and summer vacations.

In recent years, Central Florida teachers, parents and others have filed thousands of complaints about indoor-air quality in schools — blaming their runny noses, headaches and respiratory distress on mold discovered in classrooms, cafeterias, media centers, locker rooms and even nurses’ quarters.

“The state needs to really get a handle on how serious the toxic mold problem is in Florida,” said Halbig, a former executive director of the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety who said he was let go from his job in Lake last year, in part because he confronted higher-level administrators about the district’s mold problems.

District officials said Halbig was let go simply because his annual contract expired. He never discussed mold issues with schools Superintendent Susan Moxley, said the district’s executive director of human resources, Laurie Marshall.

Although the presence of some mold in the air is normal, experts say it should not be allowed to multiply indoors. And mold found growing in a building should be removed immediately.

Joe Joyner, a recent past president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, agreed that the Legislature holds the key to the problem. But there is no need for a new law, he said.

Lawmakers, facing major budgetary shortfalls, have slashed funding for school maintenance and renovations during the past several years to help districts afford basic operating costs such as electricity, paper and teacher salaries.

“I don’t see any problems with the standards at all,” said Joyner, referring to guidelines set by various environmental-health groups such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “I see a problem with the funding to make sure we can maintain our buildings.”

Researchers at the University of Central Florida, who discovered in a 2006 study that schools in Florida and some other states are chronically moldy and humid, have said that without substantial funding increases for maintenance, the situation will not improve much.

Tallahassee attorney Mark Levine, who has represented school employees in mold-related lawsuits, said the root of the problem is fourfold: poorly trained maintenance workers, long-neglected buildings, air-conditioning systems that were not designed for Florida’s weather and administrators who are slow to acknowledge problems.

Levine said doctors have testified in court that school officials have refused to order environmental tests to help decide whether employees with respiratory distress could go back to work.

“If they [school officials] do have these environmental tests, it’s going to prove positive and then a cleanup must ensue,” Levine said. “They don’t have money for a cleanup, so they’d just as soon not know.”

Halbig said Lake district officials are so anxious about the public finding out about their mold battles, they advise employees to avoid using the word “mold” in public documents, including the e-mails they send to each other.

The lack of state regulation has left districts to devise their own methods for dealing with indoor-air quality.

In some cases, the Sentinel found during its investigation, districts allowed mold problems to linger for weeks or months. They also allowed janitors to remove mold without protective gear and workers to paint over mold and water-damaged areas instead of removing them — all of which can put students or employees at risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Denise Robinette, a Palm Beach County mom who started the nonprofit HealthyLiving Foundation in 2002 to educate people about indoor-air quality in schools and other buildings, said the state should require independent inspections and oversight.

“We allow the fox to watch the henhouse, with each school remediating where they ‘see’ fit — and most of them cover their eyes,” she said. “Why can’t the Health Departments look at schools? Why can’t there be third party inspections?”

Industry leaders and scholars agree that schools nationwide could drastically reduce the mold in buildings if they would do a better job repairing roofs and air conditioners, sealing up windows and doors, and fixing all water damage immediately.

“Mold has been, and continues to be, a maintenance issue,” said Cliston Brown, a spokesman for one of the country’s largest trade groups representing the property casualty industry, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“Cleanup is fairly straightforward if water issues are addressed promptly,” he said.

Air-quality experts say one thing that will force educators, who are under immense pressure to boost test scores, to focus on the problem is proof that air quality affects student performance.

That is why the Indoor Air Quality Association, a nonprofit education and research group in Maryland, recently teamed up with The University of Tulsa to study whether there is a link between air quality and test scores and student absenteeism. At least some of their findings will be released in several weeks.

Along with faster repairs, parents want schools to do a better job keeping them informed — especially when large amounts of mold or the more dangerous, toxin-producing types are discovered on campus.

“Even the small amount could be causing harm to the students and staff,” said Richard Bolam, president of the PTA at Kaley Elementary in Orlando. “Toxins equal poisons and who knows the long-term effects.”

The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities and various environmental-health agencies suggest that schools release and discuss what is found during inspections —especially when a private contractor was hired to do it — as quickly as possible.

But that often does not happen, parents and teachers said.

Lake County mom Sheila Baker wishes her son’s elementary school had been up front about its mold problems years ago. He kept getting sick at school and, today, as an adult, he still has breathing problems.

His former school, Roseborough Elementary in Mount Dora, was closed in 2000after being plagued by mold and other problems.

“It was later determined that mold was in the classroom, but it was not disclosed how bad the problem was,” Baker said. “My son still has to use an air purifier in his room and he is now [an adult].”

A South Florida legislator who co-sponsored one of the bills filed in 2004 to require schools to make improvements said state leaders could not pinpoint back then the magnitude of schools’ air-quality problems.

If they are, indeed, widespread and chronic, they should be fixed — no matter what it costs, said state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D- West Palm Beach.

“But what scares me is where we, as taxpayers, would get the money to do those repairs,” she said. “I shudder to think about shutting down hundreds or dozens of schools and rebuilding them. Think of what that would cost.”

Bill Smith, facilities director for Okaloosa County schools in the Florida Panhandle, says revamping his district’s air-quality program about 10 years ago took a lot of work initially.

But, afterward, building maintenance became easier, he said. Complaints dropped drastically.

After Okaloosa adopted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Tools for Schools” program, it replaced roofs, tightened doors and windows. It even changed the size of ceiling tiles and started using tile in portable classrooms instead of carpet to reduce allergens such as mold.

Complaints about faulty air-conditioning systems and teachers and students with flu-like symptoms dropped from 75 in 1994 to fewer than 15 in 1999 — an improvement that led the district to become one of the first in the country to earn an award for air-quality excellence from the U.S. EPA.

The agency’s “Tools for Schools” program, which is offered for free to schools nationwide, is the same one the grand jury in Broward recommended seven years ago.

Today, Smith said Okaloosa only gets a handful of complaints a year.

“EPA will bend over backwards to help you,” he said.

Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at or 407-420-5470 or 386-228-5008.

•John P. Lapotaire, CIEC •Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant •Microshield Environmental Services, LLC

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