WEAVERVILLE (CBS13) — It's rare that a school superintendent asks a reporter to investigate his district, but Jamie Green was so desperate to protect California students that he came to CBS13 for help. It was only after hidden toxic mold devastated the Trinity Alps School District, that Green realized just how dangerous invisible mold spores could be.
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Turns out there is no required mold testing in schools - or any indoor air quality regulations, protecting kids in classrooms.
Now the Trinity County Department of Public Health plans to set the nation's first mold safety threshold for schools, and Superintendent Green is calling on lawmakers to protect students state-wide.
Alyssa Keyes and her son were both new to campus at Weaverville Elementary last year.
"I had an upper respiratory infection last year, my son had pneumonia, we had respiratory issues throughout the classroom for three full months," recalled the preschool teacher, who goes by Miss Aly. "I was the sickest I'd ever been," she added.
Chyann Giddings' son was also new and suffered from headaches and respiratory issues. "We actually had an attendance meeting because he was out of school a lot sick," Giddings said.
Mom, Hanah Parkenson, says her older daughters had suffered from chronic bronchitis and migraines on campus for years.
Like the other parents, she chalked it up to normal kid stuff. Then, last summer, everything changed.
DISCOVERING HIDDEN MOLD
School superintendent Jamie Green was just as shocked as the parents to learn that there was toxic mold lurking in his schools.
"Until you test for it until you look for it, you just don't know," Green said.
After someone flagged a mold patch in a cafeteria, they decided to hire an Industrial Hygienist to test for airborne mold spores district-wide.
"It was very high, the highest I've seen," recalled Kristalynne Anderson, Trinity County Director of Environmental health. "And this is not our first set of schools to have [a] mold issue.
Anderson immediately quarantined the buildings on both campuses after mold tests found spore counts ranging from a few hundred spores/m3 to hundreds of thousands. It was only then that they started searching for hidden mold and, across the district, they found it hiding under carpets, behind walls, and in the ceilings.
MOLD CONCERNS STATE-WIDE
Anderson notes that Trinity County does not have a particularly humid climate. She, along with many others, believes there are schools across the state with hidden mold issues just as severe as theirs.
In fact, a state report to the legislature in 2004 found the majority of California schools surveyed reported signs of moisture or mold in their classrooms.
The report linked mold spores to allergies and asthma, noting asthma was the "number one cause of chronic school absences, accounting for as many as 3 million missed school days a year."
Fifteen years later, there is still no required testing for mold in schools and no law that regulates air quality in schools. However, the Department of Education tells CBS13 that mold concerns are the most common complaint that they get.
The state reports the primary health hazards for mold in schools include asthma, allergies, respiratory infections, eye irritation, and rashes, like eczema.
NO MOLD LIMITS IN SCHOOLS
Weaverville Elementary school principal Katie Porpurko says she was shocked to learn there are no state or federal guidelines for airborne mold spores in schools.
"My frustration came from, once those test results came back, What did they mean? I don't know," Porburko said. "We had to do research on our own."
She struggled to provide guidance for parents and faculty, like Miss Aly and school secretary Deanna Briggs, who's currently on chemo. Briggs' doctors say she's immune-compromised and at greater risk for infection. She worked in one of the buildings with the highest spore count.
"There just isn't a guideline out there, and that's what was shocking to me, Briggs said.
"As a teacher, our number one job is to keep them safe and if we don't know what the harm is we can't do our job," Miss Aly added.
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) insists they can't set science-based exposure limits and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that standards for acceptable or normal levels have not been established.
Both agencies recommend against the type of airborne mold spore testing done by Trinity Alps, noting that it can be expensive and difficult to interpret without established limits or standards. Unlike some other states, California does not require mold assessors and remediators to be licensed so the industry is largely unregulated here. There are no federal mold licensing regulations.
CDPH adds, "The establishment of health-based permissible exposure limits for indoor levels of mold would imply that some levels of mold are safe, when in fact, they may not be."
Instead, both agencies say that any visible water damage, mold or musty odor is unhealthy and should be immediately addressed.
However, Green argues, "It's invisible unless you test for it!"
Trinity Alps Unified stresses that they didn't know they had water damage or mold until they tested the air and started ripping open walls to look for the source.
"It's an invisible toxin so you don't know it's there. "It grows in dark places so it's not visible on the wall," Green points out.
He notes that there is a set threshold for student safety when it comes to lead in the water and wildfire smoke outdoors, but there is nothing regulating the indoor air that students breathe for much of their eight-hour day.
Teachers do have some mold protections under the CAL/OSHA regulations for workers. In some countries, students are classified as workers, because they're working in school, so they also have protections. But students have no indoor air quality protections here.
"It's time for the state to look into the air quality of students in their buildings," Green said.
NO TESTING IN SCHOOLS
"If (schools) were tested on a regular basis you wouldn't have these multi-million-dollar projects." Green argues. "You would know that one classroom is at a high level you would simply abate that classroom and you would move on and keep student safety."
He points out that his district spent millions over the summer to build a temporary campus made up of portable classrooms until they can secure the state funding needed to safely clean and restore their buildings.
Green worries the funding could take years to get and fears other districts might be tempted to leave kids in contaminated classrooms as they wait.
State law does require that schools are "maintained in good repair" which includes being free from water damage and visible mold. Schools have access to a voluntary visual checklist, known as the "Facility Inspection Tool" (FIT), to help them document any signs of moisture or mold. The results are incorporated into the annual School Accountability Report Card (SARC).
But the inspections are self-regulated by the districts themselves and, according to the state, "FIT was designed to be a visual inspection tool by a common person." The Office of Public School Construction, which developed the tool, acknowledges the FIT would not have identified the issues in Trinity noting, "The mold in Trinity Alps case could not be seen until it penetrates the ceilings or walls."
Green stresses that if schools were required to test for airborne mold spores earlier, they might have identified the hidden problem earlier and avoided this massive mitigation that could bankrupt the district.
SETTING THEIR OWN LIMIT
Tired of waiting for regulators to step in, Trinity county has decided to do what the state and Feds have not. The director of Trinity County Public Health disagrees with CDPH's assertion that science-based mold exposure limits can not be established.
"I think that there is a way to set a limit. And here in Trinity, we are working on a way to do that," Anderson said.
The Trinity County Department of Public Health plans to set the nation's first mold safety threshold for schools. They plan to use the naturally-occurring outdoor mold spores as a baseline, taking indoor and outdoor readings every day for a year, and using an average of the two to establish an indoor threshold for classrooms.
"So if the inside levels are much higher than the outside levels, you have something inside your building producing mold. Find it eradicate it move on," Green explains.
They stress that they still intend to address any visible mold or moisture issues - regardless of the spore count. But setting an airborne baseline will alert them to when they may need to search for hidden mold that can't be seen.
"I think we will be the first school in the country where we're going to say we will not allow our students to breathe toxic air. And we'll have a number... and it will be scientific and it will be data-driven," Green points out.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
In the meantime, it's not clear how long students will be stuck in temporary portables without a cafeteria, library or gym.
But teachers are optimistic that it will be a healthier year.
"I have to wonder if it's not related," Mrs. Aly said.
"It'll be really interesting to see as the cleanup happens. Do our illnesses go down?" added Principal Porpurko
A neighboring school reported a drop in sick days and an increase in attendance after mitigating their campus for mold.
Hoopa High School reports their attendance increased from 82.2% during their mold remediation in the 2016/17 school year, to 94% last year, their first full year with the new facilities. They add that they are already on track to see even higher attendance this year.
Superintendent Green is now calling on lawmakers to require regular mold-spore testing in schools, making it his mission to shed light on what's growing in the dark.
STATE & FEDERAL RESPONSE
To date, no California or Federal health agency has been willing or able to set a mold threshold for students.
We spoke on background with five different agencies, but none would agree to an interview on the record. Each agency did stress, however, that any level of mold can be dangerous, and that any building can be contaminated regardless of climate.
The EPA notes that indoor mold is generally due to water intrusion and leaks, related more to building materials and plumbing than climate. They also note that an increase in mold and "some moisture problems in buildings have been linked to changes in building construction practices during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s."
There is a voluntary federal program to help schools identify and prevent indoor air quality problems, but the state found, at last check, in 2004, only 11% of California schools took part. Neither CDPH or the EPA could provide updated numbers.
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