Sullivan East mold woes not just an isolated experience

By Sam Watson
Press Education Writer


Sullivan East High School's mold-inspired stay at Bristol Motor Speedway has increased awareness about the need for mold testing and moisture control in other area school districts.


"I'm getting more educated on this, just like everybody else," Kevin Ward, middle school supervisor for the Carter County School System, said Friday.


Sullivan County officials shut down Sullivan East Oct. 4 after potentially dangerous stachybotrys, also known as "black mold," was found in a classroom. Classes resumed Oct. 14 in the speedway's skyboxes for a temporary stay during mold abatement.


Tennessee Education Commissioner Faye Taylor toured "BMS High" Friday and called on all school systems to make environmental issues a priority. She said Sullivan East's mold problem unfortunately was not an isolated case.


"It's happening all across the nation," Taylor said. "It's happening all across Tennessee."


The commissioner said she was trying to get a good feel for how extensive mold problems were among Tennessee schools.


"We want to make sure that our directors of schools are aware of this issue and also that they understand that communities can come together to solve this problem very quickly and very positively," she said. "The one thing we don't want to do is ignore the situation."


Taylor said her staff was working on guidelines and procedures for mold investigations and abatement in schools. The state Department of Environment and Conservation's Air Pollution Control Division does not regulate mold but offers testing and abatement suggestions for houses, schools and other facilities.


"I've been doing quite a bit of personal research on this issue, and I find that the EPA (the federal Environmental Protection Agency) does not even regulate some of these issues," Taylor said. "Right now, we're going to provide as much guidance and information to our local school systems as we possibly can.


"But we really don't have any jurisdiction to go in and tell them what they must do at this point," she said.


Some local school systems, however, had developed their own procedures for handling moisture and mold issues, some of which were in place before Sullivan East's troubles became public.
"We try to keep a close eye on it," Washington County Schools Director Grant Rowland said, adding that schools had experienced occasional moisture problems from roof leaks and heavy air conditioning condensation, but never the black mold found at Sullivan East.


He said maintenance crews regularly replace damaged or stained ceiling tiles and check condensation drip pans to prevent mold growth. Replacements and repairs have kept Washington County's school roofs in shape, Rowland said, and schools have had adequate air circulation, as well.


Leslie Storie, maintenance supervisor for the Johnson City School System, said whenever stains or spots appear on ceiling tiles, crews replace the tiles when students are not present. Moisture sensors had been installed in classrooms, he said, and problems had been solved by simultaneously running both heating and air conditioning systems.
"It's expensive to do that, but it takes the moisture right down," Storie said.


The city's biggest moisture issues were found in one of Fairmont Elementary School's classroom buildings. Storie said although no mold or mildew was ever found, the classrooms had a constant smell of mildew, so crews replaced carpet with tile and increased outside air intake.


"That seems to have solved the problem," Storie said.


In Carter County, Ward said after the news broke about Sullivan East, the school system's maintenance supervisor surveyed schools to determine any outstanding problems, immediately developed a protocol for investigation and responded to complaints at two schools.


One complaint involved a leaking sink in a portable kindergarten classroom, he said, and the other involved moisture-swollen cabinet doors. The administration photographed the affected areas at both schools and ordered air samples to determine mold-spore levels.


Ward said tests indicated that neither location had spore levels anywhere near those considered dangerous. Kindergarten students were temporarily relocated as crews repaired the portable classroom, he said, and increased air intake solved the other school's problem.


As for Sullivan East, Schools Director John O'Dell said he expected the school's BMS stay to last another one or two weeks. A report due in the middle of next week should indicate when the school would be ready for occupancy, he said, and the move would take place over a weekend.

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