I-Team: Dangerous Air Quality In Many Mass. Schools

By Joe Shortsleeve, WBZ-TV

GARDNER (CBS) – There’s something wrong in many Massachusetts schools, but it’s nothing you can see or touch.

The I-Team found poor indoor air quality is making it harder for many children to learn.

As you drive up to the Elm Street School in Gardner, it’s easy to notice most of the windows are open. It stays that way all thru the winter according to Superintendent Carol Daring.

The elementary school, which was built in 1926 and houses about 500 students, has a chronic problem with fresh air.

Ray Lashua believes the school’s air is making his daughter sick. He says this as he studies a report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health which indicates a carbon dioxide reading of 1921 parts per million in her classroom.

That is more than three times the recommended amount of CO in an environment habituated by children.

His daughter would only cough when she was at school and that meant constant calls from the school nurse. “It sounded like a child who has the croup.  A dark, deep barking cough,” he said.

“With 10-15 minutes of being outside the school, it would stop and it never happened anywhere else,” he added.

The state report indicated astronomical carbon dioxide readings throughout the building.

Dr. Daring said some of the buildings ventilators don’t work and admits the air exchange isn’t what it should be.  When asked if that meant the air quality also wasn’t what it should be, she agreed that was the case.

The I-Team obtained a DPH report from 12 years ago when the state inspectors told Gardner officials basically the same thing: the air quality in the Elm Street School was bad.

Dr. Daring, who has been at the helm of the school system since 2005, does not believe anyone dropped the ball.  “I’ve seen evidence that that it was on older capital planning lists as well, but it’s an extraordinary expenditure,” she explained.

That explanation doesn’t satisfy Lashua, who said “They never should have put this on the back burner.  I don’t want any child to suffer, especially if it can be fixed.”

Poor indoor air quality is in schools everywhere, unfortunately.  The I-Team reviewed dozens of public health reports from across the state over the past two years.

We found alarming levels of carbon dioxide in schools located in a wide array of communities: Haverhill, Georgetown, Fitchburg, Melrose, Brockton, Hingham, Holbrook, and Duxbury, for example.

Common causes of unhealthy air include leaking roofs, blocked ventilation units, and overgrown shrubs blocking exterior vents.

Suzanne Condon of the DPH says the health consequences are real.  “Exposure to higher levels of mold and moisture can certainly exacerbate asthma and there is some question in the public health and medical community about whether or not it might actually cause asthma,” she said.

When asked about the 1998 report from Gardner, and whether students are let down if DPH recommendations are ignored, Condon replied “I think it is safe to say that children aren’t in an as optimal environment as they should be if our recommendations are ignored.”

It has been written in academic studies that poor air quality makes it harder for students to focus and stay alert in the classroom.  That affects learning.  In fact, students in classrooms with good ventilation score about 15% higher on standardized tests than those with bad air quality.

Education professor Dennis Shirley of Boston College said, “You can’t see it. You can’t touch it, but the impacts are real.”

He added, “The hard thing about these issues is the kids won’t be able to articulate it necessarily, but something will be wrong, and it changes the delicate chemistry that a teacher is trying to establish in a classroom.”

Officials in Gardner have initiated an extensive cleaning program, and have removed rugs and stuffed animals from classrooms which might be breeding grounds for mold.

Real long term solutions are expensive, and like most communities, Gardner doesn’t have that kind of money lying around.

Poor air quality is not linked to the age of a school building.  If that building has been well maintained, and the ventilation system has been upgraded as part of any remodeling projects, then the air quality can be just fine.

Click here to read reports of buildings analyzed by DHP.

  • MB

    What is the point of the chest Xray? My guess is the Xray is a file photo and has nothing to do with this case. Did you interview any physicians for this story? There seems to be a confusion in this story between health effects and effects on learning.

    • rhonda Campbell

      MB, because kids need to have a healthy environment in order to learn! Kids can absolutely get SICK from being in schools with bad air quaility, I’m a witness to that, and know for a fact it affects learning.

  • A Teacher

    I am glad they did this report on Elm St School. Our kids should be the priority here not the bottom line of a budget. I don’t think there is a confusion at all in this story – learning is what the kids are in school for and if the air quality is not conducive to that then that is an overall health problem. I doubt the office of the Superintendent has poor air quality. The x-ray was clearly not a direct part of the story but a prop to show when discussing the health concerns. I know the child talked about with the chronic cough and everything her dad said was true. Not to mention there were several others with similar issues. I know those parents too and the amount of time their kids missed school due to breathing problems makes it hard for them to keep up with their learning. Thank you iTeam for paying attention to our needs! I moved my child out of district and this is one of the reasons.

  • Rhonda Campbell

    We need help at Hunking Middle school in Bradfore (Haverhill) Take a look at the Environmental Report done two years ago, its on line. The school is a dump and there is mold in the 6th grade wing. The grounds of the school has cracks in foundation, the roof was only a temp. fix 10 years ago, the windows don’t work properly, kids get sick, and I know of one child who can’t even go to that school because of his asthma, he must be home schooled. It’s ridiculous, we as parents had a meeting with the Super. and the Mayor, and just basically got Yes’d to death. We need help FROM STATE LEVEL… Our kids are suffering and it makes me sick that people turn a blind EYE to this problem.. Me and a few other parents talked to the Eagle Tribune a few weeks ago to get the word out. SOMEONE needs to HELP our SCHOOL. You need to do a report on this and come and see the school to actually see how BAD it is.

  • Rhonda Campbell

    I meant to say Bradford, MA We would love for WBZ to come up and visit and talk to us more about this issue.

  • MB

    Rhonda, I don’t disagree. Sounds like these schools need better ventilation. My question was about the chest Xray photo which is gratuitous. And don’t you think an article which suggests a medical problem should have included comments from a medical doctor?
    Same Physician

  • Elm Street School parent

    Maybe if Gardner stopped buying new suv’s for the fire department and police department they would have more money to take care of the kids. This town is so corrupt.

  • D. Anderson

    How are the police or fire supposed to respond to calls in the winter without an SUV? There are may roads that are otherwise impassible in this city during the winter. Use some common sense.
    Why not accuse the Superintendant of Schools of being corrupt, for taking a six figure salary while the kids go without books or busses.
    Why not accuse the Parents of being corrupt, when they sign up their kids for Free lunch, but then have money for scratch tickets, drugs, and drinking at Our Place Pub??
    It is far to easy to sit back and point fingers at other people… but what are you doing to make the situation any better?

  • concerned parent

    I am the parent of a severe asthmatic who attends the Elm Street School. Back to school for my child means back to steroids, nebulizer treatments, absences and hospitalizations. My child can literally feel a difference in his breathing minutes after leaving the Elm Street School building. So please don’t tell me the poor air quality is not affecting these children, their health, and their ability to learn effectively. Simply put… IT IS. I realize this is a costly project, but Dr. Daring, I beg to differ. SOMEBODY is ‘dropping the ball.’

  • annoynomous

    i agree with “concerned parent”

  • Allie Boutwell

    I am the parent of a little girl in Mrs.Bogart’s class at Elm Street School and the same thing happens to my daughter.Everyday she comes home from school and says “mom am I sick?”. I check her tem. and I look for strep throat,
    but what do I find,NOTHING! I am so concerned about my daughter and I am
    always saying” what is happening to Morgan? Is she alright?” Dr.Daring,
    someone is defenetly “dropping the ball”
    Please help me.
    sincerly Allie Boutwell

  • need help

    does anyone know the policy or law for bad air quality in classrooms?! Please let me know by sending me an email at soccercrazy22@aol.com

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