When Pete Rast’s daughter came home from Casey Middle School this winter talking about classes being moved from classrooms to the library because of concerns over sewer gas smells, Rast followed up with her school principal.
In a January email exchange between Rast and Casey Principal Justin McMillan, Rast asked McMillan to confirm that classes were moved, what the readings were on hydrogen sulfide monitors in the areas of the school, where odors were reported that day and whether the principal planned to update parents. McMillan responded that strong smells had not been reported to him, he had been out of the building all day and so had not experienced them, and said classes were not moved because of any smells. Rast countered that three children said classes had been moved to the library.
“Many of us whose children are being exposed to hydrogen sulfide on a regular basis at Casey are quite concerned and are looking forward to better documentation and openness regarding this important issue,” Rast wrote. “The fact that the principal is unaware that teachers are moving children to different areas in the building to avoid strong sewer smells is a significant concern.”
McMillan replied, “I am aware of the classroom movement and it was not due to smell or gas levels.”
Rast then asked, “This is what the children told their parents. What was the real reason?” He did not receive a reply, and followed up days later saying that his wife was volunteering in the library and knew students had been moved there.
“I’m sure you’re aware that there has been some distrust between the parents and the district on this important issue,” Rast wrote, once again asking for clarification on why classes were moved. “I think it would be great for everyone if we could put this issue behind us.”
Five days later, when he’d received no reply and no explanation, he forwarded the email to the school board and superintendent.
That sentiment — wouldn’t it be great if we could put this behind us? — is likely one shared in the community. Wouldn’t it be nice if the concerns with air quality at Casey were a thing of the past, and with them, any lingering odors, any need for mention of sewer gas and hydrogen sulfide or the thiosulfate marker it leaves in human blood? And wouldn’t it be nice if the distrust and divisiveness bred by this issue, the circulating suspicions of conspiracies and cover ups, evaporated as well?
Boulder Valley School District Superintendent Bruce Messinger has said repeatedly that Casey Middle School is safe, and in the March 10 school board meeting, declared that the issue for the school now, essentially, is an image problem.
“There’s a fair amount of misinformation that’s been communicated in the community, some of it is fear-based — and the motivation I don’t fully understand,” Messinger said. “We’re confident that after folks understand the efforts that have been made and the issues that contributed to the hydrogen sulfide initially have been addressed and the system has been re-balanced, we just have to build confidence over time.”
Clear and open communication will achieve that, he said.
In his update to the school board, he said that with the latest round of repairs to a breach in the pipes, the septic system is no longer contributing hydrogen sulfide into the building and reiterated that even when there were leaks in the building the hydrogen sulfide levels were below what the county and state health departments have set as the standard and the levels have “never been high enough to cause long-term health effects for students or staff.” The district has also followed up with staff members who have reported symptoms they believed were related to hydrogen sulfide exposure and found no evidence that the symptoms experienced are a result of hydrogen sulfide. He had even checked information on health office visits for another school to compare with health office visits at Casey, and found them similar.
It all adds up to the sentiment Messinger expressed in an email concerning the school board’s motion to require continuous air quality monitoring and a symptoms survey for employees and students.
“Casey School is safe,” he declared.
That assurance isn’t enough for some school board or community members, and asserting that the school is safe when there is still ongoing mitigation and air quality monitoring may be pushing for that much-desired ending before it has actually arrived.
“Instead of saying it’s safe, let’s believe people who are coming forward saying they’re having issues,” says Board of Education member Tom Miers. “It may or may not be [safe], but we don’t have the information to say that. What we know is that there are smells and odors. Teachers and students are complaining and getting sick.”
His position, and one he says he shares with health department staff, is that even if the level of hydrogen sulfide in the school is still below the threshold for what’s considered acceptable for long-term exposure for children, but above the threshold for smelling it, it’s still a problem.
“The fact that you could smell something is not a good learning environment,” Miers says.
Of the state and county health department staff and the physician with National Jewish Health that were consulted, Messinger says, “We’ve asked repeatedly, ‘Is there anything you’re seeing here that should cause us to do a more aggressive intervention with the school, including evacuation or removal of the students?’ and they said, ‘There’s nothing there. We are not recommending that and we believe it’s a safe school.’ … If they had any reason to believe it was unsafe for students or staff, they would order us to respond and we would. This isn’t just out of the superintendent’s office. My position on this from the beginning has been totally dependent on these air quality tests and the advice and the insights of folks that this is their work and this is what they do.”
Miers says that in his conversations with health department staff, he’s understood something a little different — that long-term health effects like cancer may not be a concern, but that’s not the same as being safe.
“We haven’t collected enough data. We haven’t surveyed what the symptoms are. We just don’t know. So the [Colorado] Department of Public Health will not say it’s safe,” Miers says. “The only thing we know right now is that the levels that have been measured are not considered to be long-term health issues by the Department of Public Health. That’s really all we know. And we don’t know all the times where the air wasn’t measured, what those levels were, and we don’t know why people are complaining of these symptoms.”
In his own recent visit to Casey, he noticed rooms where the air felt stale or where smells, like those of running computers, had built up in the room, and his eyes and nose were a little irritated.
“I’m not that sensitive, but I noticed — I don’t think I’d want to be in here a long period of time,” he says.
The indoor air quality at Casey Middle School has been tested on about 40 days, of the roughly 1,770 days since the school reopened in August 2010 — that’s about 2 percent of the time — primarily for hydrogen sulfide believed to be coming from the sewer system.
“I don’t think you can know with total certainty that the air quality was within safe levels every single moment the school has been open,” says Board of Education member Sam Fuqua.
During the last school board meeting, the majority of members voted for more air quality testing.
“Speaking for myself, I wanted more data, I wanted to know about what was in the building on more of an ongoing basis particularly before and after this work that’s been done over spring break,” Fuqua says. “I just thought that was important, to create more data both for analysis purposes and for peace of mind.”
Air quality testing is expected to take place again later this year — Messinger says he’s waiting for recommendations from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment before moving forward on those plans. The expectation is to test air quality both in and around the school to confirm that it’s safe, but also, he says, “We need to restore some confidence in the community.”
At this point, Messinger says, there isn’t anything to lead them to think the levels would be varying widely between the periods in which they’re testing the air.
“Two years ago, when we were still discovering some of these sources, we might not have been as confident then,” he says. “There’s only a list so long that could be potential sources, so we are feeling at this point really confident that we’ve taken care of those.”
The school district spent spring break finishing the latest rounds of repairs to the Casey School, which has seen the district repairing a breach in sewer pipes, re-balancing the system to adjust air pressure throughout the building to prevent it from pulling air into the building from the sewer or other sources, and extending rooftop vents so they better distribute air, including sewer gas, away from the building.
Miers has expressed disappointment that the continuous air quality monitoring the Board of Education called for in a motion passed on March 10 did not begin prior to those improvements. A week after the motion was passed, Miers sought an update by email from Messinger and was informed that Messinger and his deputy superintendent were meeting with representatives from the county and state health departments to begin work on those motions, and would move forward with air quality monitoring once written recommendations were submitted from the state health department. Miers argued that the health department staff should have input in the duration of the air quality monitoring, but not dictate its start date.
“One of the rationales for the motion was, let’s get continuous data monitoring before all these fixes so we know when these fixes are done over spring break, we can see if there’s a change, did that help us or not, otherwise we’re just shooting in the dark,” Miers says. “The board direction said this, and the superintendent has not done this, and that’s obviously a violation of a policy and of his contract.”
One of the objections to immediate and continuous air quality monitoring had been cost, Miers says — that proposals came in at $100,000. But when Miers sought an estimate himself, it came back at $20,000.
The motion also called for the district to ask the state health department to propose an employee and student symptom survey and to provide a certified industrial hygienist and toxicologist to evaluate the results of air quality tests, assess the potential sources of symptoms reported and bring those results to the board.
The symptoms survey, which is expected to be run some time in April, may help to identify patterns that could trigger a search for other potential sources for those symptoms. The directives from the board of education call for a survey of both staff and students, but Messinger says children will not be included in the survey out of concerns for privacy and adequate data collection.
In an email dated to just days before the motion calling for a symptoms survey, Boulder County Public Health’s Michael Richen told Miers that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had met with “Messinger and his crew” and “stressed the need for an employee symptoms survey by the CDPHE but the district was not interested in that.”
“I asked why, and the response that I got was, ‘Well the concern was that it would just cause more public concern, public worry,’” Miers says.
That email exchange came a year after the creation of a document that lists Casey staff and faculty concerns with the septic gases. Respondents were asked whether they had smelled the gas, thought they may be experiencing health issues related to hydrogen sulfide exposure at low levels, had sought the care of a physician and had any other comments or concerns. Of 20 responses, the only one to not directly state that yes, he or she smelled an odor at least on occasion, was one who appears to have missed the meeting in which the document originated because of an appointment to discuss the intense burning that had continued in his or her eyes for the previous two months.
Respondents described smelling the gas often on Mondays or in the mornings; on the first floor of the school in particular, and sometimes in stairwells or in the cafeteria; during or after cold spells. They also reported health effects they believed were tied to their exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas that included headaches, sore throats, burning/irritated eyes, heart palpitations, dizziness, clumsiness, shortness of breath, insomnia, mouth ulcers, decreased energy, nose irritation and nausea brought on by the smell.
“Often feel like I am coming down with flu-like symptoms and then [feel] much better once I leave the building,” one wrote.
“My eyes are often irritated when I am in the building. Once outside it is fine,” wrote another.
“I am an extremely healthy person but this year had had numerous headaches upon arriving at school, lose my focus in the later afternoon and my eyes often burn. I feel great once I leave school and on weekends,” another wrote.
Some said they didn’t experience any symptoms, sometimes smelled the gas but weren’t sure a few headaches could be attributed to that cause.
That’s the position Messinger has been taking at school board meetings — without medical proof that these symptoms are tied to hydrogen sulfide exposure, he’s unwilling to believe that hydrogen sulfide at Casey is the cause.
“We’re not trying to tell people they’re wrong, we’re just saying we actually need the evidence to see,” he says. “If we have evidence of that, that actually helps us with what we’re dealing with, so we’ll continue to work with families and with our employees if they continue to have symptoms.”
Those employees have been encouraged to take their concerns to a workman’s compensation doctor. A union representative at the meeting in which that directive was first given says faculty were reluctant to do so, for reasons he never really understood. Messinger confirms it took about a year for that first workman’s comp doctor’s appointment. Seven faculty members at Casey have sought the care of the workman’s compensation doctor, and two teachers have gone back more than once for health issues believed to be related to the school environment, Messinger says.
“They’ve eliminated hydrogen sulfide as being any potential source in his assessment and that they are continuing to identify, is there an environmental variable that’s affecting their health and does it have anything to do with Casey Middle School or it might be something else,” he says.
During the February special board meeting held to address air quality concerns, representatives from the faculty advisory committee mentioned that 27 teachers had expressed concerns over health effects from air quality at Casey.
“They were simply saying this is an issue that we want the school district to pay attention to. There was not evidence that all 27 were themselves personally experiencing symptoms,” Messinger says. “I think as much as anything it was a show of support for colleagues in the building to say if any one, even one person is experiencing symptoms that might be related to this, we should take it seriously.”
Other board members saw it not as solidarity, but an effort to report that they believe the air at Casey is affecting their health. Those who have come forward publicly as suffering symptoms — math teacher Kris Thacker was vocal at a meeting at the end of Feburary and was placed on leave shortly after and has since been moved to another school — have expressed fears that they’ll face some kind of retribution.
“I’ve been on the board almost four years, and I’ve seen zero evidence of retribution in this district. That’s not how our superintendent works,” Fuqua says. “I do not understand where that fear is coming from.”
Messinger characterizes the situation at Casey as nearly resolved, and only sporadically a nuisance now. Casey has had only “one event this year where there was actually an odor in the building,” he says. That odor was attributed to the sewer pipe breach near an air handling system that has since been located and repaired. If someone reports an odor, a technician is sent out immediately to sample the air. There’s just one report of that kind of activity taking place this winter.
But school board members say the emails they get about Casey have referenced more than one day an odor was noticed at the school this year.
Three children have moved to other district schools out of concerns over air quality at Casey, Messinger says.
The reality, for Casey, is that concerns about the air quality may never be fully in the rearview mirror.
“I hope this does the trick, this re-balancing and this extension of the vent pipes and everything else they’ve looked into, that going forward the building will not have this air quality issue and if it turns out that we haven’t quite got it yet, well, we need to go back in there and keep working on it until it’s fixed. I think everybody feels that way,” Fuqua says. “But I am hopeful that … these are the final fixes, but what I’ve learned in educating myself and the district’s education of us as board members on indoor air quality is that these LEED buildings are very tight and very finely tuned, so I think some level of ongoing monitoring is going to be necessary going forward because systems can require adjustment over time and particularly in a high-efficiency building. We’re going to have to stay on top of that.”
Messinger cautions against taking a do-it-yourself approach to air quality monitoring. The devices the school system uses have been carefully calibrated and less expensive monitors brought into the building may produce very different readings, he says.
“We’ll take those and set them right next to these calibrated, sophisticated machines and you would just think you weren’t in the same place because the readings aren’t at all the same,” he adds. “So we just encourage folks to not overreact to those because it just creates fear and confusion.”
Others say it’s the unanswered questions that are feeding the fear, confusion and explanations invented in an effort to answer questions that the district’s responses either haven’t been clear on or have left unanswered.
Is the school filled with Chinese drywall? No, that’s been checked, says board member Tina Marquis. Is it over the top of an old coal mine? The Division of Mining Reclamation says there’s no record of coal mines in that area. It is on the site of a former brick factory, Mier says, and he’s spoken with health department staff who say it’s possible that digging a hole through bedrock, even if that hole is refilled, creates a path for gases or liquids. They won’t know until those tests are run.
So why have the questions seemed to increase as the district believes it has arrived at more and more answers?
A few individuals have gotten organized and vocal, Messinger says, and they’re particularly taking issue with the levels the district has set as safe for Casey.
“They basically don’t accept the standards that have been established for indoor air quality, and so they believe it should be something different than that, and they’re entitled to that belief,” Messinger says. “Yet at the end of the day, I think we need to hold our standard that’s a commonly held standard for other schools and other public buildings, because if it’s an unrealistic standard we can’t attain or there’s no evidence that it’s necessary, it could put our school district — and I would argue every school district in the state — in the position that we couldn’t occupy the buildings. But I’m not questioning their sincerity or their concern, but we also need to rely on folks we’ve engaged in from public health individuals to indoor air quality specialists to other contractors who do sampling all over the state indicate that we’re well within that normal range.
“It’s probably just a different perspective.”
Boulder Valley School District is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. on April 2 at Casey Middle School Auditorium, 1301 High St., Boulder. Speakers will include Dr. Karin Pacheco with National Jewish Health; Richard Shaughnessy, Ph.D., of the University of Tulsa’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology; and Mike Van Dyke, Ph.D., chief of environmental epidemiology for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.