|Sick School Syndrome: In the News|
In Sarasota County, a mother pulled her son out of school after,
she said, he was "poisoned" by pesticide spraying. "Children
should never be exposed to these toxic chemicals," said Nancy
Rogers, who now teaches her 7-year-old son, Andrew, at home. "This
can happen to any child."
In North Florida's Wakulla County, a family tried to sue the school
district after their son became a "bubble boy" so severely
allergic to everything that he had to be isolated in a sterile
environment. The family blamed school pesticide spraying.
Some districts, including Pinellas, are cutting back on spraying.
They are focusing on sanitation and other common sense measures
and using chemicals as a last resort.
Three years after a Yucaipa Junior High School student became
ill from what his family called contaminated air in the classroom,
Troy Grove has been awarded $83,500. "We believe that we
established the contamination of the air quality in the junior
high school," said San Diego attorney Michael Padilla, who
represented Grove against the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School
District in the 1995 lawsuit. '''The heating, ventilation and
air conditioning system was not properly maintained and was not
efficient in the manner in which it was moving air in and out
of the classroom. As a result, we had mold, fungi and contaminants
at very unacceptable levels in a number of those room, and Troy
Grove was injured...compromising his high school days."
Grove will receive $47,000 from the Inland Empire Schools Insurance
Authority for the out-of-court settlement, expected to be signed
by a Superior Court Judge (Thomas Nuss) on July 7. "I don't
know if money could ever really take care of everything I went
through," said Grove, 18, who received a Yucaipa High School
diploma Thursday though homeschooled since the 10th grade. Grove's
mother, Doris, said her son's immune system was permanently damaged
by the exposure to the contaminated air in the portable classroom.
He is now hypersensitive to his environment, she said.
Air quality tests in 1994 showed high levels of bacteria, mold,
yeast, fungi and carbon dioxide in several portable classrooms
and in the counseling center. A third of the junior high staff
filed workers' compensation claims against the district during
that time, claiming respiratory and other health problems.
Judy Sanderson, a chemically sensitive Culver City high school
biology teacher who has taught at the school since 1970, and who
has been the victim of "fragrance assaults" by some
of her students on more than 90 occasions (since 1993), has won
some precedent-setting accommodations after a collective bargaining
agreement was issued by arbitrator, Ronald Hoh, signed on November
25, 1997 (California State Mediation and Conciliation Service
Case # 96-3-740). In a landmark decision by a state arbitrator
released in late November, student pranksters caught dousing the
teacher or her classroom with fragrance-based products will be
punished as they would be for any other physical assault on an
Fifteen years ago, Sanderson was accidentally exposed to a dangerous
dose of concentrated formaldehyde. She now suffers from headaches,
nausea, chest pains, burning eyes and nose, feverishness, and
diminished eye/hand coordination, motor skills, and short-term
memory loss when exposed to formaldehyde, fragrances, wood dust,
gasoline and other solvents. She has since also been diagnosed
with Reactive Airways Disease. Unfortunately, some students and
parents have not taken her illness seriously. Time and time again
she has found her classroom door, floor and lab tables sticky
with scented residue.
While the binding decision did not grant Sanderson all of her
requested accommodations, the concessions that were made validated
her complaints and reiterate the fact that, "Employees
shall not be required to work under unsafe conditions or be required
to perform tasks in facilities which endanger their health and
or safety." The following accommodations have been
won by Ms. Sanderson:
Sanderson's victory is a triumph for EI/MCS patients everywhere!
(Judy Sanderson has been a client of mine for the last several
Shawn Villwock, a 16-year-old sophomore at St. Charles High School,
slumps his tired body in his chair at the oak kitchen table of
his Royal Fox home. In front of him sits a glass of water next
to half a dozen pills including anti-depressants, vitamin supplements
and liver cleansers. Behind him, an ionizer machine hums as it
blows fresh air into the house. Speaking at a barely audible volume,
he finds the energy to speak a few words at a time, telling about
his condition. "Slept everyday last year during class,"
Shawn said. "Couldn't breathe. Dizzy. Out of it. Couldn't
Shawn has been diagnosed with multiple allergies to mold, dust
and pollens, as well as with Candida, a yeast-related illness
that essentially weakens the immune system. He is currently taking
nutrient supplements and has an IV treatment every week.
According to his mother, Cathy, Shawn's condition has been severely
aggravated by attending classes at the high school. Cathy Villwock
points to several factors in the high school she says contribute
to her son's condition, including a presence of mold, poor ventilation
in the classrooms and an overall poor quality in the air the students
breathe on a daily basis. Similar concerns have been raised by
the school faculty, several of whom have complained of symptoms
such as burning eyes, burning in the throat, and nasal passages,
headaches and lethargy while working in the school.
The Dunham wing of the high school was built over 25 years ago
during a fuel crisis as an energy-efficient structure with NO
WINDOWS in many rooms, many interior rooms and few vents. Science
teacher Bonnie Redmer said dramatic enrollment increases have
caused partitions to be put into rooms and closets to be made
into classrooms, decreasing the effectiveness of the ventilation
During Homecoming Weekend in 1994, four teachers and 26 students
were hospitalized after becoming ill due to noxious fumes at the
A cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas drifted Thursday from a chemical
plant to two elementary schools, sending at least 45 people, mostly
children, to four area hospitals. The symptoms, mainly nausea,
headaches and vomiting, were considered treatable, and the patients
were expedited to be released the same day, officials said. Courtis
Elementary School was forced to close about an hour after the
9 a.m. leak from the Quaker Chemical Co. plant, less than a mile
"I was feeling like I was going to throw up," pupil
Iesha Stevens told WXYZ-TV of Southfield. The leak, which also
prompted the evacuation of Keidan Elementary School was contained
by Thursday afternoon and both schools were expected to reopen
In schools across the country, bad air has been making children,
teachers and other sick. When Christa McAuliffe Elementary School
in San Jose began a long overdue renovation, children developed
mild symptoms, but during the application of a roofing solvent,
a kindergarten teacher and a parent became violently ill. Another
mother, volunteering in her son's portable classroom, developed
severe symptoms and now has Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.
South Carolina's climate produces a great deal of mold and mildew,
with one in five schools thought to have unsatisfactory air quality.
After teachers and students at St. Andrews Elementary in Charleston
County began getting sick, the local newspaper hired an environmental
consulting firm to examine the school. The firm found the school's
air conditioner covered with mold and dust. "Totally disgusting,"
said one of the firm's partners. Almost 60% of those at the school
were experiencing symptoms.
Carpets are a big part of the problem. After Hurricane Bertha
flooded North Myrtle Beach Elementary School, its music teacher
developed Multiple Chemical Sensitivities when the school installed
new carpeting. At H.E. McCracken Middle School in Hilton Head
Island, carpets were cleaned but not properly ventilated, with
the resultant moldy air making many children sick. Last October
the local school district approved $540,000 to remove the carpet
in 27 schools and replace it with vinyl tile.
An ill teacher in another South Carolina school brought an air
purifier into her classroom and then sent the filter to a lab,
which discovered an alphabet soup of toxic chemicals, including
carcinogens, that were also found in the janitors' floor cleaners
and in her blood. Now disabled with MCS, she found school administrators
denying that there was anything wrong with the building. Fortunately,
the Workers Compensation Commission sided with her.
Karen Spencer, a mother of a Gloucester High School student, presented
the School Committee with a petition signed by 86 people who have
suffered some type of ailment they say is related to renovations
at the school. "This is just the tip of the iceberg,"
Spencer told the committee. Headaches, nausea, rashes, and fatigue
are some of the symptoms students and teachers have complained
about in the past few months at Gloucester High.
Some blame those maladies on fumes they associate with extensive
construction work under way at the school.
Science teacher Christina McMahon, who became sick last fall and
has been out on disability leave ever since, broke into tears
as she wondered aloud if she would ever teach again. "Think
about what you are doing to the kids," McMahon implored.
A worker who sprayed WD-40 lubricant on a jammed air intake damper
Friday inadvertently caused the evacuation of a New Brighton grade
school. The fumes were sucked into the ventilation system at Bel
Air Elementary School, 1800 5th St., NW., causing an evacuation
of about 600 students plus staff members Friday morning, said
John Ostlund, health and safety coordinator for the Mounds View
Seven students and eight staff members were taken to Unity and
Mercy hospitals, but almost all were released within a few hours,
hospital officials said.
Ostlund said a worker hired to fix a rooftop fresh air damper
sprayed the lubricant in four places while intake ventilation
fans were operating. Two teachers feeling nauseated and dizzy
went to the school nurse about 10:45 a.m. Students soon followed
with similar complaints, said Principal Craig Sundberg. He said
he ordered a partial, then full evacuation as more students reported
feeling ill. Ambulances and police responded.
Chrissy Garavito (daughter of Janine Matelko), age 15, died on
June 30, 1997, allegedly due to ongoing exposures to organophosphate
pesticides heavily sprayed throughout her school district in Fontana,
California. Chrissy had been having "seizure-like episodes"
while enrolled as a student at South Ridge Middle School. She
would turn blue and stop breathing. Her physician placed her on
anti-seizure medication. Happily, these episodes abated when Chrissy
transferred to Fontana High School, where she served as freshman
and sophomore class president, a cheerleader, and was revered
as a star athlete and honor roll student. In late June, Chrissy
was invited to play at an "al star" softball game back
at the problematic (pesticide-laden) middle school. She and her
teammates changed clothes in the locker room and then went out
on the field of South Ridge Middle. Chrissy collapsed while sliding
into home plate. It took the paramedics 20 minutes to get a pulse.
She was transported to a local hospital and kept on life support
for about a week until she died on June 30, 1997.
An autopsy showed that Chrissy did not have epilepsy but rather
that she suffered from a relatively rare condition known as Prolonged
QT's (Prolonged QT Syndrome), which causes heart arrhythmias and
Sudden Death. Chrissy's Mom has since learned that two other students
(1 girl age 15; 1 girl age 18) have died of the same kind of sudden
death and that one 40-year-old female teacher died of the same
condition in early 1997.
It is also interesting to note that the middle school was built
on a toxic dump (Kaiser Steel buried radioactive wastes; Stringfellow
Acid Pit) where 35 million gallons of solvents and pesticides
were dumped between 1956 and 1972.