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Mold plagues school

Local, state officials examine health risk

By Steven Rosenberg
GLOBE STAFF CORRESPONDENT

On Dec. 2., doctors thought they were close to pinpointing the reason why Daniel Gentile was suffering his 10th case of pneumonia in the last three years. As he was undergoing a bronchoscopy , an invasive test to examine his lungs, doctors were stunned by what they saw. Throughout the 7-year-old Beverly boy's lungs were sections of aspergillus fumigatus mold.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aspergillus fumigatus may cause pulmonary infection, fever, coughing, and chest pain. It may also spread to other areas, including the brain, skin, and bone.

As doctors debated the best way to treat Daniel, Peter and Julie Gentile set out to find out how the mold got into their son's body. On Dec. 3, they pulled Daniel from school, set up a home tutoring system, and scheduled their house to be tested for aspergillus . When the tests came back negative, they went to the Beverly school system looking for answers about the McKay Elementary School , which Daniel had attended since September.

Within days, they learned that in October school workers had replaced a moldy section of wall in one of Daniel's classrooms without taking any precautions suggested by the EPA, School Superintendent William Lupini said. The Gentiles also learned that the McKay Elementary School had been tested for mold in November by ATC Associates Inc., an air quality assessment company. The air quality report found different types of mold in the air and dust in six rooms, including 33,000 colony-forming units per gram of aspergillus in Daniel's classroom, where the wall section had been replaced. With this information, the Gentiles asked Lupini to retest the school.

The Jan. 6 test was conducted by Gordon Mycology and revealed levels exceeding 60,000 colony-forming units per gram of aspergillus in the wall and paint in Daniel's classroom. The testing company also concluded that the level of aspergillus in the school's band room was "too numerous to count." Aspergillus was also found in a second-grade basement classroom, Daniel's classroom.

Two months after they learned about the mold in Daniel's body, the Gentiles, and a number of other parents and students are still questioning just how safe the school is. "We want a safe environment for the children at the school," said Peter Gentile. "There is aspergillus growing in the basement and other rooms at the McKay School , and there is aspergillus growing in Daniel's lungs."

Last Wednesday nearly 100 parents gathered in the school's gymnasium to listen to recommendations from representatives of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "There are no guidelines when it comes to mold," said Suzanne Condon, assistant commissioner of the state agency, when asked if the levels of mold presented a danger to students.

Condon said the mold in the two second-grade classroom carpets may have developed last summer when the carpet was installed during a particularly hot and humid week. She also traced the mold in the classroom's wall. She also said there were numerous dehumidifiers with standing water found in the band room. The state agency, which was asked by a parent to visit the school, ordered the room closed on Dec. 30.

At the meeting, Condon recommended removing paneling, insulation, carpeting, and ceiling tiles in the band room and the basement's two second-grade classrooms in accordance with EPA guidelines on removal of mold. She also suggested opening the windows to allow air to circulate in the elementary school, and exploring the installation of a new heating and ventilation system. The school deactivated its system in 1998 and has not installed another system, Lupini said.

Lupini said he would implement the state's recommendations, starting with removing the carpets in the basement classrooms during February school vacation. He also said he would try to accommodate parents who want their children moved to other elementary schools. "We've granted five to seven requests," said Lupini .

The state report is the second indoor air assessment Condon has issued concerning the school in the last five years. In 1998, Condon urged the school to repair its ventilation system, which contributed to high carbon dioxide levels. Condon's report found that all but one of the rooms tested in the school exceeded her department's guidelines for carbon dioxide levels. Test results ranged from 805 to 1,455 parts per million, all higher than the state's guideline of 600 ppm . "Inadequate ventilation and/or elevated temperatures are major causes of complaints such as respiratory, eye, nose and throat irritation, lethargy, and headaches," the report stated.

In a January 2001 indoor air quality test conducted by FLI Environmental, the carbon dioxide levels exceeded the state's 600 ppm guidelines in 34 areas of the school. The levels ranged from 826 ppm to 2,198 ppm .

When asked about the school's central ventilation system, Lupini acknowledge that it is still inoperable and that the school had not followed the state's recommendation to make repairs to the system. "I take personal responsibility for our district's failure to implement some of the recommendations contained the 1998 DPH report. I am very concerned that we didn't follow through on all of these recommendations. They were addressed to me and I am ultimately responsible for their implementation."

Ron Bouchard, the school's facilities manger, confirmed that the central ventilation system has not worked since 1998. "There's no cooling outside of the windows," said Bouchard, who added that two wall-mounted ventilation systems had been installed in two basement classroom after the 1998 report.

As he flipped through the pile of school reports he has accumulated over the last two months, Peter Gentile contemplated his next move. He said his son was not able to take the antifungal medicine prescribed by his doctors without vomiting, so doctors switched him to an intravenous drip medicine, which worsened his cough. Gentile said Daniel may undergo another bronchoscopy next month to monitor the growth of the mold. Gentile said his greatest fear is that the mold could continue to grow inside his son, and compromise his immune system. "If it's left untreated, it will eventually kill you," said Gentile.

For Gentile, last week's meeting "was to little too late." He looked around at concerned parents, and asked out loud why there was no ventilation system in the school. "If the recommendations contained in five years' worth of reports were followed and the air quality was improved, the mold might not be as serious an issue as it is today," he said.

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