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County disputes claim of danger from mold at Oak Ridge Elementary

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

By J. Brian Ewing
Staff Writer

Accompanying Photos


Photo Caption:
Oak Ridge Elementary School.

GREENSBORO, North Carolina — Guilford County public health officials stood before cameras and microphones again Tuesday to urge caution before leaping to conclusions about troubles at Oak Ridge Elementary School.

The news conference came three days after Linda K. May, a health and safety consultant, told reporters and some concerned parents that mold at the school was dangerous enough to close it permanently.

“None of her statements make any sense to me,” said Dr. Ward Robinson, medical director for the Guilford County Department of Public Health.

May said she holds bachelor’s degrees in public health and safety engineering and nursing, and is also a former local, state and federal health department inspector.

She said she was contacted by Oak Ridge parents and staff. They provided her with copies of the district’s reports on the school, which she reviewed before coming to her conclusion. May said she is not being paid.

May did not return calls Monday for comment.

Mold has been found several times in the building — as recently as this week — since it underwent major renovations and new construction in 2005. It was shortly after that work was completed that the complaints began.

However, Robinson said mold is not causing employees and students to report illnesses ranging from headaches and nosebleeds to fatigue.

“At no time has mold posed a danger to any person in this building,” he said.

Instead, Robinson believes a lack of properly regulated fresh air in the building could be causing most of the reported symptoms.

Robinson is basing his theory on results from a survey taken by about half of all students and employees. Many of the employees surveyed said they felt better when they opened windows and doors. Robinson said many of the reported symptoms are similar to suffocating, which would explain why people felt better after fresh air was introduced.

Robinson said he has never heard of, nor seen reputable medical research behind, much of the information being spread among parents and teachers. That includes the idea of mold poisoning.

Amy Pritchett, a parent of two Oak Ridge students, said she and other parents don’t know who to believe.

“There’s such a lack of trust” with county officials, Pritchett said. “I’m trying so hard to believe and buy into what they’re saying.”

Pritchett said she isn’t sure if she agrees with May or Robinson, but she is glad the issue is finally getting attention.
Pritchett would also like to hear from authorities outside the county on the matter. She could soon get her wish.

The school system will hire a national facilities maintenance firm to evaluate the school heating and air-conditioning system. The district used local firms previously and found no serious issues. However, complaints of illness have persisted and school officials want to take the investigation to “a higher level.”

Schools officials have requested assistance from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a government agency under the umbrella of the Centers for Disease Control. The school system has also sought help from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Beginning today, the school will be closed to everyone except health officials. The school’s principal and other school administrators will be relocated over the summer.

School officials are also working on a plan to place Oak Ridge students elsewhere.

County commissioners Chairman Melvin “Skip” Alston said the commissioners are prepared to pay for whatever repairs are necessary.

“Any assistance or funding they need we will be there for them,” he said. He also said the community must trust the experts involved.

The school system reports spending more than $600,000 addressing mold and other issues at the school so far. The school board voted earlier this month to set aside nearly $500,000 in the 2009-10 budget to address any future issues.

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