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Invisible invaders: Mold discoveries and ailments on Texas campuses

Invisible invaders: Mold discoveries and ailments on Texas campuses
By Miles Moffeit
Fort Worth Star Telegram
July 10, 2000
Web posted at: 4:18 PM EDT (2018 GMT)

In this story:

Political barriers

Hazardous breathing?

Schools full of particles

RELATED STORIES Downward pointing arrow

FORT WORTH, Texas (Fort Worth Star Telegram) -- As an investigator in the thick of an environmental mystery, Ken McBride spends his days slogging through dark crawl spaces in school buildings, lifting grimy carpets and poking through cobwebs above ceilings.

Each case presents the same tricky question: Is something in the air making children sick?

In a span of a few days, McBride prowls through a Burleson elementary school where there have been reports of foul air and children with itchy eyes, then he walks the grounds of a Dallas high school where students smell "something dead." Back in Tarrant County, he responds to Grapevine parents who are concerned that they might have a "sick" elementary school building because of repeated mold discoveries.

McBride, an industrial hygienist for the Texas Department of Health, handles indoor air concerns in a whopping 49-county territory. All by himself.

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"It's like I'm fighting so many alligators, there's no time to drain the swamp," he said.

The challenges of solving indoor air mysteries at schools across Texas are formidable: no staff support, weak state standards, scant public awareness and lots of invisible intruders. Perhaps not surprisingly, problems persist year after year and appear to grow.

The big issue: Is the health of schoolchildren being jeopardized by a lack of attention to air quality?

The danger is real, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, which point to a slew of contaminants in some buildings -- including construction materials, furnishings, cleaning agents, pesticides, radon, bacteria, lead and mold.

One cause for alarm is that schools are crowded, so fresh air is easily reduced. Children's maturing lungs are more susceptible to infection and damage. Also, a school construction boom exposes children to more contaminants, experts said.

But no agency in Texas closely tracks incidents of sick children or the severity of health problems in schools, despite reports at some schools of allergic reactions, headaches, itchy eyes and other ailments associated with bad air.

Political barriers

Because of a dearth of data and a lack of guidelines for identifying levels of dangerous exposures, most lawmakers are not ready to attack the issue.

"If they don't believe it's a real health threat, many say, `Why put money into it?' " said Quade Stahl, chief of the indoor air quality branch of the state Department of Health.

Health Department officials said many indoor air problems can be avoided with careful construction and building maintenance. But many school districts, already overwhelmed by the construction boom, are unaware of what steps to take and do not have indoor air policies.

The state and federal governments have standards for indoor air at schools, but many Texas school districts do not know them.

Then there are political barriers.

About five years ago, a state health task force proposed a set of indoor air mandates, including a proposal believed to be unprecedented: banning carpeting in schools because of problems with mold and chemical emissions.

The effort was blocked by hard-lobbying carpet companies that said it was off-base and would damage the industry.

But recent indoor air problems are prompting another push for strong controls.

This spring, a wave of mold discoveries and various air problems disrupted schools in Tarrant and Dallas counties. In Austin, administrators shut down a mold-infested school. In Burleson, administrators closed an elementary school because of sewer odors.

In response, state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he plans to resurrect his decadelong effort to make indoor air monitoring mandatory for school districts. A group of Tarrant County residents is pushing for a statewide forum on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency's goal is that 15 percent of U.S. schools follow government indoor air standards by 2005.

The potential payoff is too profound to ignore, advocates of better indoor air controls say. Healthy air means healthy children, they say. And healthy children mean a better learning environment.

"It boils down to common sense: We just don't want or need to live in a moldy, contaminated environment," said Mike Miller, indoor environments coordinator for the Texas region of the EPA.

Hazardous breathing?

Three years ago, investigator McBride was about 15 feet outside the front door of W.A. Porter Elementary School in Hurst when his senses were assaulted by mildew odors, he said.

"My sinuses suddenly went berserk, and my throat got really raw," McBride said. "I'm like a canary in a coal mine. So I know what that means."

Inside, he set up a ladder near the center of the school and climbed through ceiling tiles. Perched on a steel rafter, McBride clicked on his flashlight and illuminated a huge mass of dark mold.

"This was one of the worst cases I've ever seen," McBride recalled. "I said, `Somebody's painted the roof up here black.' "

The blob was not confined to the roof deck -- mold covered 100,000 square feet of vertical and horizontal space, McBride said. Inspections found it seeping into walls, ceilings, carpets and crawl spaces. Aspergillus, penicillium and traces of stachybotrys, a potentially lethal mold, were found. But tests determined that harmful airborne spores had not slipped into classrooms, according to documents.

McBride's investigation was triggered by parents' concerns that their children were having breathing difficulties. That summer, carpets were yanked, wallboard was ripped out and the roof was replaced.

Back then, Porter Elementary and other schools in the Birdville district were studies in mold horrors.

Three years later, health officials praise Birdville as being progressive in its efforts to improve air quality. Other school districts should copy what it did, officials say.

"Most of the roofs in the district were replaced with metal, so you stop much of the water infiltration," said John Hughes, Birdville governmental compliance officer. "We also do biannual base line air-quality checks in our campuses. Our policy also is that we will not go back with carpets."

Scientists are only beginning to understand the threat of mold in public buildings. But studies during the past decade indicate links between mold and "sick building syndrome."

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requests for indoor environment evaluations have increased dramatically since 1980. Investigations have increased to 52 percent of the CDC caseload since 1990 from eight percent in 1980.

Mold is a fungus that can grow on or in objects and is abundant in outdoor and indoor air. Buildings can feed excessive fungal growth if surfaces or hidden materials, such as wallboard, are too moist.

The Centers for Disease Control recently tried to tone down alarm about stachybotrys, which is believed to be one of the most hazardous molds. But McBride and others say that dozens of other molds pose dangers to the lungs.

There is good reason to believe that schoolchildren need to be better protected, experts say.

"We see allergic tendencies much more common in children than adults, and nobody really knows exactly why that is," said David Kahn, assistant professor of allergy immunology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "The reality is, we can't quite understand the aging process of the immune system, but it seems to change."

Kahn said the exchange of fresh air can be diminished in tighter, crowded buildings, so schoolchildren could be more susceptible to health problems from indoor air pollution. The problem is, he said, the scientific data is murky on the issue. "There's just not enough," he said.

Two years ago, Texas Tech University researchers published a 22-month examination of 48 U.S. schools that identifies mold as a prevalent problem.

"It is clear from our findings that fungal growth in building interiors can be detrimental to the health of the building's inhabitants," the study states. In the buildings examined, 38 percent of staff members (622 occupants) reported problems from the air, including watery and itchy eyes and nasal drainage, the study states.

The study also cites links to building practices begun in the 1970s. Texas abounds in aging schools with sealed windows and cardboard-covered air- conditioning vents, making them traps for moisture and chemicals. Without fresh air, paint fumes or gases from new furnishings can linger, and mold can develop.

During the past decade, McBride's office has investigated air problems in at least 52 schools in Tarrant, Collin, Dallas and Ellis counties. That caseload does not include the rest of his 49-county beat or complaints handled by air-testing companies. It also does not cover asbestos cases.

Almost half the reports cite suspicions that students or staff members suffered ailments, such as allergic reactions or headaches, that are possibly linked to bad air or mold. No detailed numbers are kept because health inspectors and school personnel are not required to do so.

Some patterns emerge. Documents point to poor ventilation, moisture intrusion and carpeting as culprits behind air pollution.

Here is how mold can creep into a building: A roof leak or other moisture wets the carpet. Microscopic fungi lying dormant in the carpet grow, and spores go airborne. The air- conditioning system spreads spores to other parts of the school, triggering allergic reactions.

"One big problem is that in the summer, some schools shut off the air conditioning to save money, when it would be better to set it on 70," McBride said. "But when you turn the A off and the humidity gets out of control, once it's above 70 percent, it's all the mold needs to start growing."

The Texas Tech survey indicates that health problems drastically declined after the buildings with mold were scrubbed clean, certain building materials were replaced and air-conditioning systems were overhauled.

"Complaints registered after remediation by staff never exceeded 3 percent which represented a significant reduction in the number of complaints," the study states.

Schools full of particles

Of all the molecular villains in the indoor air issue, mold appears to receive the most finger-pointing. Yet, much more can threaten the air that children breathe.

A thick soup of particles can swirl through a building at any time, and the concentration is often up to five times greater than that in outdoor air, according to the EPA.

Gases are given off by furnishings and clothing. Dusts and fibers are stirred up during construction projects. Hundreds of volatile organic compounds have been identified, some of them emitted by carpets, wall coverings, sealants, paint and stain.

Part of the air problem stretches to a 1970s movement to reduce energy costs amid the oil embargoes. School officials constructed tight buildings that were more like chambers, diminishing the fresh air that can flush out organic compounds and other foreign particles.

To ratchet down energy bills, air-conditioning vents were closed and windows were sealed.

Later that decade, reports of illnesses in buildings mounted, and health experts began exploring sick building syndrome. Legionnaires' disease also stirred alarm about airborne bacteria in buildings. As various problems spread, the EPA ranked indoor air quality among its top five health concerns during the past decade.

"We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and there are exposures to all kinds of particles and chemicals," said Mike Miller, the EPA indoor environments coordinator. "The difficult thing is trying to get the message out to schools. That's what we're trying hard to do now."

In Texas, parents are driving the movement toward clean air.

Kim Phillips of the Texas PTA has nudged districts to adopt indoor air policies, which only a handful of districts have.

"In Texas, we've had pockets with really bad problems. In El Paso, they were really bad," said Phillips, the PTA environmental chairwoman. "They had buildings that were neglected for eight years, and last May, the parents just erupted. I got this call from a parent who was just beside herself and couldn't communicate. It's like this a lot -- I spend my time getting them calmed down to explain what's wrong.

"I called the Health Department and the EPA, and as a result, they're implementing indoor air quality rules. They also have a new superintendent," she said.

School construction and renovations are moving at record paces nationally, but attempts to spread awareness about safer construction putter along. That complicates indoor air issues.

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