Building sickness: Teacher left Scarborough school to protect her health

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SCARBOROUGH — Before she began teaching at Wentworth Intermediate School in 2006, Meredith Doyle had a mild allergy to cats and no other significant health problems.

Four years later, Doyle, 30, of Portland, said she has suffered from chronic post-nasal drip, which has caused other health issues, and is now extremely sensitive to any airborne irritants. She has seen a range of specialists – pulmonary, acupuncture, allergy – who have confirmed her suspicion that her exposure to allergens like mold while she taught at Wentworth have caused serious breathing issues.

“The first year, I had a lot of prolonged colds,” Doyle said. “I didn’t really connect it. I connected it to germs, to the kids, to the new environment. The next year, it got a little worse, and the third year I really noticed it was worse.”

Doyle, who previously worked in old buildings in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Bar Harbor, said eventually she connected the visible mold growing on her classroom’s water-damaged carpet with her breathing problems, and reported it to school administrators.

After several e-mail exchanges with former Facilities Director Norm Justice, Doyle said she was able to convince officials to replace a five-foot square of the damaged carpet with tile. But water continued to seep into her classroom through a broken door, and the carpet was often wet.

When Doyle started discussing her health concerns with other teachers, she said she found out that the teacher who previously taught in the classroom had asked to be moved due to air quality issues, and that many other teachers shared her symptoms.

After another teacher suffered a severe asthma attack during a meeting last spring, Doyle said she and other teachers submitted a union grievance about air quality in the building.

Superintendent David Doyle (no relation to the teacher) said there was no grievance of any kind on file. “No grievance ever came to this office,” he said.

Meredith Doyle said the union grievance was tabled over the summer when the School Department agreed to work on solutions. Union representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

But whether or not there was a grievance, copies of studies by Northeast Test Consultants show Wentworth school has been plagued with air quality concerns for at least 12 years – long before the discovery this year of asbestos in window glazing.

All of the studies were done in classrooms or offices where complaints were made. The entire school has never been tested, administrators have said, because the cost is prohibitive.

A test of Meredith Doyle’s classroom in January 2009 found low levels of the mold spore Aspergillus in the room. The World Health Organization recommends that any indoor presence of Apsergillus be considered unacceptable. Long-term exposure to the mold is associated with increased sensitivity to airborne irritants.

Doyle’s room was in the west wing of the school, which is part of an addition built in the 1970s. The wing sits on a slab and is not near the school’s underground utility tunnels, which tested high for mold and radon when Northeast Test Consultants examined them last spring.

The variety of issues throughout the building, and the associated teacher and student complaints, could suggest sick building syndrome, which is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.”

During a Town Council meeting on Oct. 6, Wentworth Principal Ann Marye Dexter said students and teachers were complaining of headaches, and that she was seeing the impact of poor air quality on the curriculum.

“I’m truly worried the distraction is taking away from us moving forward with education,” she said.

According to the Maine Air Quality Council, “because of the nature of sick building syndrome, there is no single test that can confirm or refute problems. The best approach is to investigate the entire building.”

“We wouldn’t be able to afford a whole-school test,” Facilities Director Todd Jepson said last week. “It’s over $1,000 for just one room.”

A test last month by the state Bureau of General Services recommended the school conduct an “air test for mold in the rest of the school using at least four classrooms (spaced apart) and one in the hallway in each wing to give a complete scenario of the school as a whole.”

Jepson said he has already requested the mold testing begin as soon as Northeast Test Consultants finishes with the remediation of the tunnels, which is expected to be the end of next week.

While a 2006 bond to replace the Wentworth and Middle School buildings was rejected by voters, a building committee is currently being put together to review how to deal with existing facilities issues, including air quality and asbestos at Wentworth. Some town officials are already speculating about the possibility of another bond question next year.

In the meantime, the district is scrambling to deal with the complaints.

While Superintendent David Doyle said several weeks ago and confirmed again this week that he was only aware of one teacher complaint about air quality at the school, Jepson indicated he was aware of far more.

“If we did (a test) every time someone complained, we’d do it all the time,” he said. “One super-sensitive person can’t dictate school-wide testing.”

During her presentation to the Town Council last week, Dexter said several staff members have complained of headaches and other health concerns.

“I find this to be a daily occurrence,” she said. “It’s several staff, not just one or two.”

For Meredith Doyle, the suggestion that she was the only one with issues at the school and that she was just a hypersensitive person finally got the best of her. After taking a 40-day leave of absence last spring, recommended by her doctor for health reasons, she realized how much better she felt being away from the school. So she quit.

Doyle is now teaching at Riverton School in Portland, in a classroom with tile floors.

“When I saw the classroom, I cried,” she said.

Doyle said her breathing has improved and she is off all of her medication, but that she is still very sensitive to any irritants in the air. She said the most frustrating part about her experience teaching in Scarborough was the lack of response from the administration.

“I was told there was not much they could do because of money. I was not treated very nicely because of money. But we have money for other things, like turf for the athletic fields, and technology,” she said. “I’m all for things for the kids. However those kids need a safe environment to learn.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or

Sidebar Elements

Former Wentworth Intermediate School teacher Meredith Doyle plays basketball with two current Wentworth students, Ian, center, and Collin Trumpler, who are in fifth and third grade, respectively, at the Scarborough school. Doyle says she developed health issues doctors have associated with poor air quality at the school.

School Department scrambles to deal with Wentworth woes

SCARBOROUGH — Teachers and students may only have to cope a while longer with stuffy, stagnant air in classrooms in Wentworth Intermediate School.

The School Board approved up to $150,000 to replace 28 windows in the classrooms where windows have been sealed closed to prevent asbestos discovered in the glazing from entering the classrooms.

Facilities Director Todd Jepson earlier this week said he hoped the window order would be placed by Thursday, Oct 14. “The contractors have told me it will take six to eight weeks to build the windows,” Jepson said. “Then we’ll start installing them immediately.”

The Town Council voted Oct. 13 to approve appropriating unused funds from three school capital improvement projects, including the Blue Point parking and water main project, fire alarm system renewal and district-wide floor asbestos abatement, to pay for the new windows.

According to Superintendent David Doyle, the three projects were completed in 2009 and were bonded, based on cost estimates, before the projects began. When all three came in under budget it left the approximately $150,000 in surplus the district will now use to replace the windows.

In addition to replacing the windows, Jepson said the district would spend $6,000 to test for mold in 16 classrooms, four in each section of the building, and all four hallways. The state Bureau of General Services recommended the testing after several student, parent and teacher complaints, and an inspection several weeks ago.

Funding for the testing will come from the Facilities Department budget.

“We’ll be picking rooms that haven’t been tested in the past,” Jepson said. “We want people to know we’re being as thorough as we can.”

— Emily Parkhurst