Fungal Contamination Closes U.S. Elementary School

This case involves an elementary school where an IAQ investigation revealed fungal contamination in a basement area. In order to properly address the problem, officials relocated students to another building and subsequently decided to seek other uses for the building.

The school, located in the mid-Atlantic region of the US, is a moderate-size two-story building that housed approximately 300 students. The original portion of the school is over 100 years old, while other sections were added later. Construction is brick and mortar with cement slab or wooden floors.

Occupant complaints spurred the investigation. Most of the complaints - musty and moldy odors coupled with dampness - concerned the basement area. Three teachers and one other staff person who worked in the basement area had suffered severe respiratory problems. One individual required hospitalization and intensive care on a respirator.

In addition to one-on-one interviews with the staff, the investigators took microbiological samples. Using a centrifugal sampler operating at 40 liters per minute, they tested all classrooms in the basement, the cafeteria on the first floor and the library on the second floor, as well as outside samples as a control. A week after the first visit, the consultants received the results of their initial sampling and this led them to conduct another round of testing. This time they evaluated the extent of microbial contamination in the upper-floor classrooms, following similar protocols they had previously used in the basement area.

The most prevalent health complaint was sinus congestion, which was reported by eight people. Other symptoms included: headache (7), eye irritation (6), fatigue, sore throats, and coughing (4 each), sneezing and dry mouth (3 each), and skin rash (1). Six people reported they had allergies that could account in part for their symptoms.

The presence of the mold Aspergillus fumigatus in some of the basement areas confirmed physicians'' suspicions that at least two employees had been exposed to this organism. Recent snow and subsequent rain had flooded the basement and resulted in visible mold growth on many walls and surfaces. A borescope examination of the area under the wood floor showed gravel saturated with water that was moving toward the permanently mounted sump pump. The basement classrooms contained carpeting, providing another opportunity for microbial growth due to the general dampness and the recent flooding in that section of the building.

C02 concentrations while the school was occupied ranged from 450 ppm in the cafeteria to a high of 2,600 ppm in one of the basement classrooms. Three of four classrooms in the basements registered levels above 1.000 ppm at some point during the day.

The consultants recommended first that all personnel be restricted from the basement area until the microbial problems were resolved. School officials relocated all the students for the remainder of that school year and for the next one. Subsequently, they decided to decommission the building as a school, due to the age of the building and the necessity of significantly upgrading its systems.

The consultants also recommended a cleanup of the contaminated areas. This was done with HEPA vacuuming, wet decontamination of nonporous materials, and discarding anything that could not be cleaned. The consultants also recommended that school officials engage an architectural/engineering firm to devise an effective approach to eliminating moisture problems in the building.

  Record #25, revised 1/3/2001


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