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SOMETHING IN THE AIR? AT STARPOINT, TEACHERS LINK ILLS TO BUILDING

Starpoint Central School teacher Deborah Bathke wears a woven-fiber mask to school every day, to keep out the dust, pollen and mold. She takes it off only during lunch.

Fifth-grade teacher Susan Boris told the School Board last year that she had daily bouts with nausea, fatigue, skin rashes, canker sores, dizziness, headaches and lethargy.

"These symptoms disappear when I leave the building," she said then.

French teacher Marcia Townsend hasn't been so lucky with the air in the school building.

Mrs. Townsend, 41, who also had to wear a mask inside the school, has used all her sick days, plus 200 days from a teachers' sick-day bank. A Starpoint teacher since 1989, she hasn't taught in 14 months and stopped receiving her salary March 9.

Among her worst symptoms: blackened hands and feet, and blood dripping from her nasal cavity, down the back of her throat.

"That building has ruined my health," she said in her Amherst home earlier this week. "It's ruined the quality of my life. It's wreaked havoc on our family life."

"There's no describing the living hell I've been through," she added.

Air quality has become a hot topic at Starpoint Central School. At least four teachers have joined some parents in publicly complaining about the air quality in the sprawling building, which houses fourth through 12th grades in six wings.

Critics claim as many as three dozen teachers have complained informally about the conditions at the school, which is located in south-central Niagara County.

Bacterial mold has been found behind some walls, some of the building suffers from poor ventilation, and "borderline" carbon dioxide -- not carbon monoxide -- levels suggest a lack of fresh air in the building, tests have shown.

School officials, based on findings by the state Health Department and other agencies, insist it's not a sick building.

Extensive tests found air-quality measurements within acceptable ranges, and none of the mold spores has permeated the classrooms, according to Claire Pospisil, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

"By and large, I can't explain why we've had people who have reported some problems," School Superintendent Robert D. Olczak said. "We've worked with all the appropriate agencies, and all our tests have come back in a favorable manner. We can't seem to pinpoint any specific problem."

"I almost wish we could find something that's wrong so we could fix it," Olczak added.

The superintendent also cited the small number of parent complaints and the school's attendance rate of about 96 percent.

The district has taken the following steps to improve air quality in the building:

Planned a $450,000 renovation project for this summer that will include replacing wall panels, where the mold has been found. The project also includes work on the building's ventilation system.

Recently raised, by 11 feet, two smokestacks outside two school wings.

Brought in seven agencies and
private companies to conduct various tests on the building and its air quality.

Created the Air Quality Committee, to study the question and help the school community understand what's being done.

"Quite frankly, at this point in time, I believe the district has made some prudent decisions and is going in the right direction to address any air problems that there might be," parent Peter M. Yurkewicz said. "As a concerned parent, I will continue to monitor what the district is doing."

Indoor air quality is a relatively recent problem across the country, dating back only about 25 years, according to Nellie J. Brown, regional director of Cornell's Chemical Hazard Information Program.

That issue arose in the early 1970s, when the energy crisis led schools and other institutions to create more energy-efficient, tighter buildings.

Some of Starpoint's problems apparently date back to 1986, when some windows were replaced with wall panels.

It's hard to dispute that the Starpoint building has at least some kind of air-quality problem.

"There are some of us who have no doubt that place has made us sick," Mrs. Townsend said. "Otherwise, why do we get better when we're away from there?"

Mrs. Bathke, a physical education teacher, wouldn't elaborate about the problems that led her to don a mask for most of the school day.

"I tell the kids that there are things in the air that bother me, and when I wear the mask, they don't bother me as much," she said in a brief interview.

Linda Biernat of Pendleton is the mother of two sons who have developed chemical sensitivities.

"My older son (usually) does not need his allergy medication in the summer or on weekends," she said. "He only needs it when he goes to school, and he needs it every day."

Mrs. Biernat believes that even parents of well children should be concerned about possible health problems caused by the poor air quality.

"I don't know of any other school where teachers walk around with masks on their faces," she added.

Mrs. Townsend's problems in the school date back to 1990-91. She was frequently dizzy and had trouble sleeping but chalked up her problems to being pregnant with her third child.

The next two years, she developed migraine-type headaches, vision problems, food sensitivities, frequent bouts of bronchitis and almost constant dizziness while in the school's F wing.

"I'd come in at 7:30 or quarter of 8 feeling fine," she said of the 1992-93 school year. "By 20 after 8, I was so dizzy I could barely stand up."

During the winter heating season, a black soot would come from the heating system. The room sometimes smelled like turpentine or airplane glue. And the students often complained about the smells, rubbed their eyes and suffered headaches and lethargy.

In the next few years, she developed more symptoms, including circulation problems, temporary vision loss and chiropractic problems.

"There's no doubt in my mind I was being chemically poisoned," she said.

Finally, she went out on medical leave in January 1996, returning in seven weeks to a new room, "chained to an air cleaner" and wearing a blue surgical mask when she wasn't teaching a class.

Mrs. Townsend worked off and on until January 1997. She hasn't taught since then.

"It is more likely than not that Ms. Townsend's workplace at the Starpoint School has significantly contributed to her symptoms," wrote Dr. Michael B. Lax of the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse. "The timing of the patient's symptoms coincides with starting work at the school, and she has had noticeable improvement of symptoms while away from the school on more than one occasion."

In buildings with poor air quality, it's typical for some people to complain of temporary respiratory symptoms, Lax noted.

"Frequently in these episodes, a smaller number of individuals develop the more chronic and debilitating symptoms of MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity)," he added.

Mrs. Townsend, armed with Lax's recommendation that it would be "reasonable" for her to go back to work, wanted to return last September but was denied.

While saying the district remains sensitive to her situation, Olczak said that decision was based on the written advice of a school-designated physician, following a physical exam.

Mrs. Townsend remains determined to fight her way back into her job.

"That building makes me scared, because I know I will be sick again," Mrs. Townsend said. "But I feel I have a right to my job, and that right has been violated."

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