Breaking the Mold
T. H. Rogers is one of the most sought-after schools in the Houston Independent School District. The pre-K through eighth-grade facility houses three groups of kids from all over the district. It is an enlightened matchup of children in the Vanguard program, the deaf and those with multiple handicaps.
Parents jump through all kinds of hoops to get their kids into Rogers. This is a good school for teachers as well. Vanguard students are there because they want to be and tend to be the sort of non-trouble-making best and brightest that educators dream about.
But some teachers and parents, as much as they love the school, say they and their children do better when they are away from it. They point to the number of times their children have been sick, the colds, allergic attacks and respiratory illnesses that sidelined students with unwanted sick days or sent them to school at less than their best.
HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says there is no major illness problem; students had a 97-percent daily attendance rate this year. Some parents beg to differ, not with the numbers so much as the effects. Some say their kids only get well when they go away from Rogers.
These parents think they know what the problem is. They think mold has gotten out of hand, sending out the same kind of toxins that shut down schools in Austin and other parts of the country, that closed the Denton County courthouse in North Texas the other day, and that now has Fort Bend Independent School District officials promising studies after finding a potentially dangerous fungus at First Colony Middle School.
HISD is saying we cleaned up the mold last summer and hey, this is life in Houston, Texas. Some of these parents and teachers are saying no, this is life in T.H. Rogers land and we want it changed. Because some of these parents know there can be more to mold than just some unsightly greenish black stuff with an unsettling odor. Sometimes it can really mess up people. Sometimes it can have irreparable effects on their lives. Sometimes it can even kill them.
Principal Linda Andersson appointed a committee earlier this year to study the school's environment. She declined to talk with the Press, but in an April newsletter to parents she stated that the panel met with an environmental biologist and scheduled an air quality test. "I will keep you informed of the results," she wrote.
So now everyone would know what's going on.
Ah, but this is where we all sidestep into a briar patch of the bizarre. There is a report -- unreleased to the general public -- but HISD declares it an "unauthorized one." So whatever it says doesn't count. The author of the April 27 report, one Paula Vance of the Houston firm Microbiology Specialists, Inc., initially said she was willing to discuss the report with the Press if HISD released it to us (which it did). Now she says only the client can answer questions about what the report means. Except that the client as listed in the report is Principal Andersson, who HISD says isn't a client.
Confronted with this latest bit of information, Vance giggles and says, well yes, "That's true. That was unauthorized." So then she doesn't have a client, right? Well, not necessarily, it's just she didn't have authorization. That happens sometimes and then the authorization comes later, she says. Without it, she doesn't get paid. "I was working on the premise that I did have a client." Well, so who is she not naming? "This gets into a confidentiality situation," Vance responds. Check and mate.
A layman's review of the report shows several molds have invaded T.H. Rogers -- among them the notorious stachybotrys. It can cause headaches, an assortment of respiratory illnesses including asthma attacks and has been linked to deaths in young children. But whether there's enough of it to mean danger or no danger at all, is unclear. Which leaves parents, students and teachers no better informed than when this drama began.
Gee, no urgency here. It's just a bunch of teachers and kids, some of them "medically fragile" who have to deal with this. Hey and the school year's almost over, right? So they've got the whole summer to recover. While whatever's there waits for them to return.
In February, 48 Hours broadcast a show entitled "Invisible Killers." In the first horrific segment, we met the Ballards: Melinda, her husband Ron and their son Reece, age 4. While living just outside Austin, they had been overcome by toxins generated by the mold in their dream house. After moving into the 22-room mansion set on 72 acres of horse country, each Ballard began coughing up blood. Ron lost his job after his accompanying memory loss made work as a financial adviser impossible. As one of his former co-workers glumly reported on camera: "It [mold] took an extremely brilliant young man and turned him into a nincompoop." While Melinda was able to escape any lasting effects, her son was not as fortunate. A specialist in New York diagnosed that the boy's lungs had already been scarred and he had suffered some of the same neurological damage as his father.
On doctor's orders, the Ballards evacuated. Other experts told them the home and all its possessions could never be cleaned up satisfactorily and would have to be taken to the landfill. 48 Hours also showed a physician who'd done a study of 29 infants who'd become sick in their homes because of mold. Five of them died.
And the culprit in all this: stachybotrys, which, yes, has been found in T.H. Rogers, according to Vance's report. HISD is rejecting the report, Abbott says, because "We don't know where the samples were taken, anything about the sampling procedure, or anything about the production of the report. That's why the accuracy of the report can't be verified."
The report says samples were taken from books in the downstairs library, a text book in Room 127, ceiling tile in a hallway, blinds in Room 129, a cabinet with a pencil sharpener in Room 129 and plywood from a window ledge. Abbott is right; there is some vagueness here. The exact book titles would be helpful, and give us a number on that ceiling tile (We all know how to count ceiling tiles, don't we?).
Vagueness aside, it appears there is something amiss. Found in every one of those spots was some kind of mold capable of triggering certain symptoms in those susceptible to these allergies.
For example, there were many stachybotrys in the ceiling tile. The report defines stachybotrys as "aggressive cellulose decomposers," which can cause " allergic rhinitis, headaches and nosebleeds to fever and severe skin rashes" in humans. It can suppress a person's immune system and cause neurological problems and malaise.
And in the library book there were found many aspergillus spp. This "has been implicated in pulmonary, subcutaneous and ear infections." Some strains may produce toxins and set off "allergic rhinitis, allergic sinusitis and allergic asthma."
"It's all over the ventilation system," says one mother. "It's probably been there for years but it came in the open last school year when there was a high rate of respiratory illness. We'd be away for two weeks vacation and my son would be fine but when we returned to the school there were problems."
In fact, last year some classrooms were closed after mold was seen growing on the carpet. Students in one room were moved to the music room for the last month of school while the carpet was ripped out and replaced with a tile floor.
To really find out if there are problems, Vance says, medical tests should be done on students and teachers who feel they are getting sick because of the school. There's been no talk of doing that.
Drip, drip, drip. Something as annoying as water leaking onto sheetrock or a ceiling tile can turn lurking mold from a fairly benign presence to something that releases toxins and triggers allergies among people passing by it. A gap or crack can allow water into a structure that sets off the mold and, together with the cellulose found in building materials, allows the mold to energize and expand its presence.
Maintenance often isn't a top concern in any school building. Things may even look shiny on top but deteriorating behind the scenes. One Rogers teacher, concerned about the mold, called HISD's maintenance "poor; they cover up a lot." She was there when a ceiling tile was pushed up and everything above it "was like mush. They just covered it up."
Mold in schools is not unusual in Houston, Abbott says readily, but it is because of "the climate in which we live, and partially because of the age of the school buildings."
T.H. Rogers was built as a junior high in 1962. There were additions to the sprawling facility at Bering and San Felipe in 1981 and 1998. There are also special electronic doors installed for easy entry for the handicapped -- but as one teacher put it, they break down a lot. Asked if there are leak problems in areas where parts of the building have been joined, Abbott says there are leaks in Classrooms 118 and 120 where planned repairs are already under contract.
The school's mold problems were first uncovered in 1996, Abbott says, and despite various clean-up efforts, mold has re-occurred in a few spots. The most notable is the lower library which caters to the youngest children and as Abbott puts it, "hasn't been used to its fullest capacity" this year.
When the school went on its mold search last year, it discovered asbestos. Some parents fear that efforts were diverted to asbestos removal and not enough attention paid to the mold. Abbott denies this.
During the summer, workers began cleaning the unit ventilators, sealed windows to stop leaks around them, and repaired and replaced the heating, air conditioning and ventilation controls, Abbott says. Carpet was replaced in certain sections. Dehumidifiers and air filters have been deployed to certain sectors of the building. Coil cleaning will be done on the central air handlers. As far as Abbott is concerned, the problem is pretty much over and efforts will continue to keep the building dry and to monitor any reoccurrence.
Asked if more drastic measures were needed, Abbott says "not necessarily." And he says it is coincidental that many of the books (which were cleaned of mold two years ago) in the lower library are going to be discarded. They are too old to be in the collection, and their removal is part of the library upgrade plan announced by Superintendent Rod Paige in February, Abbott says.
As for the teachers, Abbott says "only two out of a staff of 210 have complained of illnesses they believe are related to air quality." So there really is no problem there.
Not all teachers would agree. As one puts it: "There are many concerned teachers who've had health problems. There's one new teacher who's had a lot of upper respiratory problems. And we have these medically fragile children here." In fact, medically fragile children have a longer school year and continue to go to Rogers for several weeks into the summer.
"I think it should be closed down this summer," the teacher says, "and cleaned up."
When Paula Vance started working in her field more than 25 years ago, there wasn't much business. Now it's a big deal; she flies around the country analyzing and dispensing mold advice. Are there more problems now or just more awareness? Probably both as buildings break down and adults become more environmentally sensitive.
Vance believes a bad environment in school does affect the ability for kids to learn, does lower the attendance records of teachers, does lower test scores.
Should these schools be dismantled? Vance says no, usually they can be cleaned up. (Although there was a case in Florida, she says, where the government spent $21 million to remediate a $7.5 million courthouse.) "Usually we try to contain classrooms. Clean and disinfect the surrounding areas. That's the reason books become a problem. There's so many different kinds of paper, adhesive and bindings," she says, explaining that a certain disinfectant will be best for one type of paper, but not another. And there's the Catch 22 that once a book is decontaminated with one disinfectant, it may become more susceptible to other molds. Which would explain the recurring problem in T.H. Rogers.
Parents say the problem renewed itself this spring. They re-complained to Andersson; Vance was invited to the school and on her way out, did an impromptu sampling.
Not all parents at Rogers are upset. Part of the difference in reactions of parents appears to be tied to whether their child is getting sick. Jane Laping, who works with Mothers for Clean Air and is concerned with outdoor air pollution, wonders if there's a mold problem in every school in HISD. She appreciates Andersson taking the lead on looking into the problem.
Still, this is a story with many disquieting parts, one of which is the fear going on at this HISD school. Parents and teachers interviewed who were concerned about the mold declined to have their names used, saying they were afraid their child might be removed from the Vanguard program. Teachers say it would just get them in trouble and they need to keep their jobs. In fact, after the Press contacted the HISD press office, Abbott went to Rogers. The next day, May 12, Andersson distributed a memo to staff entitled "The Media" which reminded them that "if the media contacts you to procure information about any situation instructional or otherwise all media coverage must go through Mr. Abbott's office."
"One thing that I've realized is that when the topic was brought up at first it was pushed down," one teacher says. "Later, we got a new principal and she doesn't want us to work against her. She can't do a whole lot because she wants to keep her job."
HISD has done things to contain the mold problem at Rogers. Whether they've been the right things is debatable. Parents, teachers and yes, even the media have a right to question that. Because at stake here are the lives of children and teachers. Maybe HISD should think about some of those medical tests.
As Vance put it: "If you clean up all the books but still return them to a hot, humid environment, the organisms come back faster. Organisms adapt."
If organisms adapt then HISD and other school districts must get smarter about how to deal with molds. Sending a lone librarian in to wipe books down with bleach won't do it.
Oh, and one final set of words of wisdom from Vance:
"Fungi have been around longer than roaches."
E-mail Margaret Downing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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