School Professionals and Surviving the School Building Mold Science Project
With the return of students to school, many school districts are fighting environmental and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) challenges, particularly mold problems. When we experience any school environmental issue such as mold, it can be front page headlines, TV, talk show fodder and Facebook news feed material.
Environmental issues in schools are not “just another student health issue”. These problems are a public relations nightmare, a staff human relations mine field, a facility management challenge, a budget buster, a political fiasco and a liability time bomb.
It’s not just mold. The environmental issues that can confront a school district and its administration include:
Lead in drinking water
Insects or insect treatment chemicals
Toxins (bus and car fumes as one example) brought in through HVAC “fresh air” systems
The sources for the exposures vary widely and unpredictably. Many of the problems started with compliance mandates that did not anticipate the environmental consequence. As an example, energy saving equipment and designs can create indoor air quality potential issues. Even asbestos started with well-intended fire protection mandates. The most common sources of environmental problems in schools include:
HVAC design mistakes
Moisture and leak problems
Original material selection
Material and equipment defects
Mixtures of events and construction conditions
Budget constraints limiting prudent maintenance
Problems created during renovations
Mold exposures are a timely example of how this whole environmental freight train gets rolling. The reason we find many mold problems when students return to school at the end of summer makes sense when looking at the most common sources of mold contaminations:
Even the very best school environmental plan is only a meaningless series of words until there is action and accountability. For action to happen there needs to be someone in charge with the authority to make things happen.
The EPA Tools for Schools program can provide a good background for “in house” management if that is the best method for the school district’s circumstances. Hiring an outside consultant is another approach which does have its benefits. It can allow for outside review and add credibility to the image that a school is taking prudent measures to protect the health of students and employees. Outside consultants have the advantage of not being subjected to pressure from school district staff.
To Do List for everyday facility environmental planning:
Establish a written system in place
Hire or assign a “person in charge”
Share the program and outline procedures for all staff
Create a communication system process for problem identification
Communicate needs such budgetary requirements to address potential problems
Correct the underlying causes that allowed contaminations to occur
Try to hide environmental problems
Paint over or disguise real issues
Withhold information such as bad lab testing results
To Do List for Environmental Events such as floods or discovered environmental risks such as mold, asbestos, contagions, pests:
Bring in qualified professionals immediately
Assign a spokesperson to handle media and public inquiries
Take action to limit personal exposures
Take all possible action to mitigate the damage to people or property
Communicate with staff and students about any health risks
Communicate with the solicitor for the school
Damage good will by hiding the situation from the public
Allow exposures to occur when a risk is first suspected
Risk personal safety by having issues cleaned before they are defined ‘
Selecting the right staff member or outside professional is the key to success of every system put into action. The best plan in the wrong hands can be worse than no plan at all. The advantage of engaging a staff employee may be constant on-site monitoring and in some instances cost savings. The potential advantages of an outside firm are access to specialists and an “on call” presence not influenced by the staff at the facilities.
Potential considerations in hiring an indoor air quality (IAQ) coordinator or team.
Training and credentials in the field
Experience and relationships in the related industries
Ability to evaluate conditions, write a plan and make and implement recommendations
Skill in testing for potential exposures or independent relationships in the field
A policy of not releasing suspected condition information unless the designated contact
An ability to deal with the media when authorized as the contact.
Building and executing a plan to maintain and healthy environment is school buildings is a win-win for all parties. From the asthmatic student who is avoiding chronic events, to the staff and tax payers, all can benefit from doing the best possible indoor air quality.