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Officials vow action on N. Harford Elementary air problems


The county school superintendent said he'll act within two weeks on an environmental toxicologist's recommendations to solve air circulation problems at North Harford Elementary that have been blamed by parents for mold and student health problems.

But many parents attending Thursday's Board of Health meeting said they were skeptical that the recommendations would solve the problems.

Parents did say, though, that the health problems that have plagued the 8-year-old school had improved since school officials began looking into the situation and improved the air conditioning system.

Harford School Superintendent Ray R. Keech said last week he thinks the school is environmentally safe.

"We truly had a moisture problem in the past and we admit that." But he said the problem has now been corrected except for some "fine-tuning."

The moisture problem was caused by high humidity inside the school because the air-conditioning system did not work properly, school officials said.

The result was slick walls and floors -- one teacher slipped and fell -- and mildew and mold that parents said aggravated children's existing respiratory problems, such as asthma, with chronic headaches, nasal congestion, coughing and sneezing.

Nearly 100 people attended the Board of Health hearing on the issue at North Harford Elementary on Thursday. Robert Olcerst, a toxicologist hired by the schools, presented technical detail on the problem and his recommendations, which included fine-tuning the air conditioning system.

Olcerst, president of Baltimore-based Brujos Scientific Inc., said he used state-of-the-art instruments to do an in-depth analysis of the school's environment from May 11 through June 1.

Olcerst gave the school and its air-conditioning system a clean bill of health, but made a few recommendations to make the air-conditioning system more efficient.

Several parents challenged his report and said there children became ill from being in the school.

But Olcerst disagreed that being in the school was the source of the health problems.

He said children were breathing the same air at school that they breathed at home or outside. "Children with allergies and other respiratory problems should actually be more comfortable at school because the air-handling system eliminates many of the irritants, such as ragweed pollen, found outside," he said.

Some children might be suffering a delayed reaction at school from irritants they came into contact with earlier, at home or outside, he said.

Keech, speaking after the meeting, said tests have been conducted at the school by eight different environmental health experts. "Not one has identified a health or safety problem."

"The survey the Health Department did shows that youngsters at North Harford are not experiencing illness any more than students at other schools," he added.

Keech was referring to a recent Harford County Health Department survey of students and teachers at North Harford Elementary compared to Bel Air Elementary and North Bend Elementary.

Dr. Beverly Stump, deputy county health officer, said the results were based on too small a group of people to be scientifically accurate.

Keech said he planed to follow Olcerst's recommendations within two weeks.

Among Olcerst's other recommendations:

* The stack pipe on the boiler system needs to be "lengthened considerably" to a total of 15 to 20 feet, to guarantee pollutants expelled from the school are not pulled back inside;

* Thermostats should be recalibrated to be more accurate;

* Window ventilator units should be connected to exhaust fans so they operate simultaneously;

* Air-conditioning system should be kept running during the weekend if the humidity was high.

Keech said recommendations from other experts already had been followed.

This included placing two dehumidifiers in the media center and providing the school with a powerful vacuum cleaner to remove dust, particularly on books and book shelves. Also, doors and windows are now kept closed during periods of high humidity.

Karen Moore, chairwoman of the school's health and safety committee and who has a daughter in the fourth grade, said she's not "100 percent confident" the school's problems are solved.

But says she is confident that everything possible is being done.

Parents, teachers and students first began worrying that the building was "sick" about two years ago.

The school board has spent $96,367 on improvements to the school to address the mold and mildew problems.

Jane Kuehne pulled her 10-year-old son, Brent, out of the school in February on a doctor's recommendation. Brent, in the fourth grade now at North Bend Elementary, had severe allergic reactions to mildew and mold, she said.

Kuehne said she would not return her son to North Harford even if the recommendations are completed. She said a 1 1/2 -hour visit to the school in March was enough to trigger severe allergic reactions in Brent.

Keech said the school board will continue to monitor the humidity in the school and conduct another in-depth test of air quality in the fall.

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