Asbestos alert leads to concern about mold, air quality at Scarborough school

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SCARBOROUGH — The discovery of significant amounts of asbestos in windows at Wentworth Intermediate School has led to a larger discussion about air quality in the building, which has more than 730 students in grades 3 through 5.

A system of crawl-space utility tunnels beneath the Gorham Road school have been found to contain high levels of mold, and preventing that mold from entering classrooms has become a serious concern.

There are entrances to the tunnels from two classrooms, an office and janitor’s closet, as well as several outdoor access points. All of the entrances have been sealed off with silicone and none of the school staff are certified to go into the tunnels.

After a contentious and emotional public meeting with parents last week, the administration and the School Board has started the process of figuring out what to do about the asbestos and the tunnels.

“We’re creating time-lines for solutions,” Assistant Superintendent Jo Anne Sizemore said during a School Board meeting last week. “Some parents thought it wasn’t fast enough.”

Northeast Test Consultants discovered the asbestos this summer when storm windows were replaced at the school. The company recommended teachers keep windows closed to prevent the harmful fibers from becoming airborne.

But when temperatures rose into the 90s for five days and classrooms became unbearable, some parents began to complain.

Newly appointed Facilities Director Todd Jepson said he was looking into possibly replacing two of the windows in each classroom, so if teachers wanted to open a window to let air into their rooms, they could. He estimated the project would cost more than $100,000.

“They should have notified parents prior to school starting,” said Aymie Hardesty, who has two children attending school in the Wentworth building. “They waited until the children were in there to inform parents.”

Hardesty, who is a School Board candidate, said she became concerned when her son would come home from school with migraine headaches, but would be fully recovered several hours later.

She also said her daughter, now an eighth-grader, told her about kids sneaking down into the tunnels beneath the building while participating in after-school activities.

“The boys were going down there. She told me the girls wouldn’t go down because of the sludge,” Hardesty said.

The tunnels date to the early 1960s when the building was constructed, and were an alternative to the expense a full basement.

Now,  because of standing water, the tunnels have produced high levels of fungal activity, documented by Northeast Test Consultants during an inspection in April. In some places in the tunnels, NTC found very high levels of Aspergillus, a mold known to cause sinus and lung infections and allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, including people with asthma.

A World Health Organization publication recommends that any airborne presence of Aspergillus be considered unacceptable.

The tunnels also contain high levels of radon, an odorless hazardous gas.

Jepson said he is looking into adding vents that would keep the gas from entering the classrooms.

“If we have an appetite for that kind of work, we could install a combined vent system, perhaps,” he said. “I doubt it would be cheap, though.”

During the April inspection, the levels of mold within the classrooms were found to be very low. A 2006 test found radon levels in two classrooms, the office and library to be below dangerous levels.

NTC recommended sealing the tunnels, removing standing water, cleaning up surfaces, removing mold-compromised paper wrapping on fiberglass insulated lines and installing a water collection and pump system or power blower system to dry out the tunnels.

“We’ve been cleaning them out and removing the standing water,” Superintendent David Doyle said. “Some drainage work was done on that end (of the building) this summer.”

The recommended mitigation was not completed by the time students returned to school in September, but is scheduled to be complete by the end of October.

Voters rejected a 2006 bond to replace the Wentworth and Scarborough Middle School buildings, although it is likely the School Board will re-examine possible funding options to replace Wentworth in the near future. However, it will be at least five years before a bond could be passed and a building constructed.

“It’s kind of like plugging a leaking ship,” said John Cole, a School Board member and chairman of the Capital Improvement Plan Committee. “At some point we need to decide, do we put money into it or wait.”

Cole said last year’s CIP was kept as low as possible, due to the economy.

“But anything risking infrastructure and safety should be done,” he said.

Hardesty, who is also running for a seat on the School Board, said she is frustrated by the lack of communication between the administration and parents and teachers.

She said she has spoken to several teachers who have filed grievances with the teacher’s union regarding the air quality at the school.

Calls and e-mails to those teachers and a union representative were not returned by deadline.

“I know we had one teacher with asthma issues,” Doyle  said. “We got a HEPA filter and that took care of it.”

He said that one instance was the only complaint he was aware of, and that he had not received complaints from students.

“The (student) attendance rate at Wentworth is as good or better than other schools,” Doyle said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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