When Beth Murphy moved back to Maryland, she thought she had left her mold-fighting days in the now-clean elementary school at her old neighborhood in Weston, Fla. Then she walked into Oak Hill Elementary in Severna Park, and her nose, eyes and ears told her she was wrong.
There is a musty smell throughout the school and ceiling tiles bowed out, apparently from moisture, Murphy said. Teachers told her they pop Claritin allergy medicine throughout the school year and use plastic coated paper clips because the metal clips rusts.
Wednesday morning, at her first Parent Teacher Organization meeting, Murphy heard Principal Cheryl Vauls say that any mold problem at Oak Hill had been cleaned up this summer, when Oak Hill and five other Arundel schools were treated for mold. Again yesterday, Vauls told a reporter “it was a little thing and it’s done.”
But Murphy said she has heard that before, when she lived in Florida. Her son, Richard, a fourth grader at the time, developed allergic reactions — sneezing and a skin rash — in response to the mold that the administration in Weston denied was there.
“When you have a child who has a problem…they don’t learn,” she said. “They miss school. They have constant headaches.”
Anne Arundel County’s mold problem crept up again this August after two weeks of high humidity. Six schools underwent serious cleanup efforts and three — including Oak Hill — even sanitized library books. Magothy and Severn River Middle Schools, housed in one complex, took 10 days to clean. But, as Murphy pointed out, mold could be part of a larger indoor air quality issue, a concern for both parents and teachers.
“When you have poor indoor air quality, then you also have mold issues,” Murphy said.
Mold is a problem that other Maryland counties, like Calvert and Dorchester, have in their schools as well, but on a seemingly smaller scale. Jim Marlett, director of operations in Calvert, said there are always small problems over the summer, but his indoor air quality technicians are on top of it. “You’ve really got to make sure you’re out there inspecting it,” he said.
There are many kinds of mold. All, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have the potential to trigger allergic reactions or even asthma attacks.
For Murphy, those allergies pushed her and other parents to action in Florida, resulting in an EPA investigation and cleanup.
Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teacher’s Association of Anne Arundel County, said her fellow teachers here also fear for their health. “This is a growing concern and the problem is going unaddressed,” she said.
Principals at George Fox and Severn River Middle Schools said they would never put their students or faculty in danger. The county school system said problems are addressed on a “case-by-case basis as you see it,” said Daniel La Hart, the environmental programs manager for Anne Arundel County public schools. “Very rarely is it anything other than a maintenance issue.”
“Water always finds its way to a visible surface,” La Hart said. And they wipe those visible surfaces with a bleach-water mixture or remove moisture in carpets by ripping them up and replacing them. “We can’t go above every ceiling tile.”
But that is exactly the concern of Finlayson. “What’s happening behind those walls?” she asked.
For some parents, the problem is relative. “I probably have more mold in my bathroom than in that entire school,” said Karen Sider, another parent at Oak Hill and a vice president of the Parent Teacher Organization. The classroom size is a higher priority for her than mold in the school
Murphy disagreed. “They spend seven hours a day there,” she said. “It’s the long-term effects” that should be considered.
Duane Gels, an Annapolis-based allergist, said he has not documented any issues of children affected by mold in Anne Arundel, but encourages awareness. “If you’re allergic, the count doesn’t need to be very high” to trigger symptoms, he said.
His biggest concern is for students suffering from asthma.
Parents of asthmatic children should monitor their responses throughout the week. “The tip-off would be that they’re healthy on the weekend” but have more trouble breathing when they return from school, Gels said. He recommended using the child’s peak flow meter before he or she goes to school and then again when they come home. The numbers should be the same as their numbers on the weekend.
“Those children suffer,” Murphy said. And she hopes her experience will lessen the impact on children in Anne Arundel County.