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ESP - Curing Sick Building Syndrome

One local gets creative about clearing the air.

By John Rosales

Helen Jacobs

Bob Ross

Painting a school building, replacing a leaky cafeteria roof, and updating a furnace installed in the 1970s takes time, effort, and—above all—money.

“Money is a tight thing,” says Helen Jacobs, a custodial specialist with the Greater Albany Public School District in Oregon. “But if you don’t take care of leaks, you’re going to have mold, [which] can make students and teachers very sick.”

Jacobs (below) oversees buildings at 23 sites in her district, including many buildings more than 50 years old.  She knows about the need to reduce toxin levels, improve air quality, and retrofit buildings to increase energy efficiency.

So, it was with great interest that she followed national news stories about the economic recovery package and how districts would be able to update old buildings with their share of the $53.6-billion state stabilization fund. The U.S. House of Representatives had wanted a separate line item worth $14 billion in school construction grants. That was good news for Jacobs, whose district cut $400,000 from maintenance in the 2008-09 budget.

“The hardest part about large projects is funding,” she says. “There’s not a whole lot out there.”

Unfortunately, one of her hopes for funding fell through earlier this year when the line item for school construction disappeared after it started a debate among Republicans in the House and Senate. Republicans didn’t want to create a new federal education program. In a compromise, the state stabilization fund grew from $39 billion to $53.6 billion—though it didn’t include money for school construction specifically.

About $8 billion of the fund has been set aside for various purposes, including modernization of buildings. But without the clarity of a school-construction line item, educators will have to contend with sub-standard environments—leaky roofs, corroded pipes, and dysfunctional furnaces—unless local decision-makers give construction projects priority.

Though disheartened, Jacobs has heard it before. In 2003, aging buildings were an epidemic in her district. The cause: budget cuts, construction flaws, natural wear-and-tear. Undeterred, Jacobs and dozens of other education support professionals and teachers got together and created the Sick Building Syndrome Group (SBSG).

“We were having issues with sick buildings, so we came up with a collaborative plan,” says Jacobs, president of the Greater Albany Association of Classified Employees.

One of the first actions taken by SBSG was to convince the school board to replace fiberglass filters with pleated filters in all heating and cooling systems. “Fiber particles get into the air and can lodge in your lungs,” she says.

Pleated filters pick up more particulates (airborne pollutants). The plan also involved changing filters three times a year instead of once, driving up the annual cost of filters from $5,000 to $20,000. The board approved the measure.

Together with the Greater Albany Education Association of teachers, SBSG participants identify building ailments, steps toward policy and environmental change, and then report their findings to the school board. They also sponsor workshops and conduct surveys that identify the link between a healthy environment and absentee rates.

Jacobs has conducted walkthroughs in every building under her purview during her 13 years of service.

“A lot of the time, a building is sick because teachers don’t understand some basic rules,” she says. “If you put a couch over the vent, you don’t receive fresh air.”

A box of books, clothing, or plants placed on heaters is asking for trouble. “The standing water in the bottom of a plant, with the dirt, causes mold,” she says. “The result can be high carbon dioxide levels.”

With summer break approaching, Jacobs says teachers and paraeducators should evaluate their classrooms and pitch couches, stuffed toys, and rugs. “They harbor mites, pollen—all kinds of things that are hard to kill,” she says.

Jacobs recommends that all schools do a survey to learn if staff knows what constitutes a healthy environment. “Staff may not know that what they bring to the classroom may be the cause of absenteeism—like animals, chairs, pillows, plants,” she says. “If kids and staff are not healthy and in school, we’re not doing our job.”  


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