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Parents await mold test results for two schools

HILTON HEAD ISLAND: Public also will learn recommendations to improve conditions at Nov. 11 forum.

By Jennifer Moore
Carolina Morning News

Beryl Title has "serious concerns" about sending her daughter to Hilton Head Elementary School.

The chronic headaches and impaired vision her daughter suffers from are a result of mold in the school, she said, and she doesn't want to continue to expose her to that environment.

"I don't want to compromise my child's health," she said.

Title is one of a few concerned parents who attended "Dangers of a Sick School," an informational meeting presented Thursday by the Coalition for Safe Schools at The Boardwalk at Hilton Head Beach & Tennis Resort.

Jeff Kitter, a Hilton Head Elementary School parent and member of the Coalition for Safe Schools, said that though his son has received a "great education" at the school, he has suffered from chronic colds and even bacterial pneumonia.

After he tested his home for mold with a "Do-it-yourself" kit and found it to be clear in September, he decided to test the school. Kitter said Teachers placed Petri dishes in their classrooms, and then he had the Tennessee Mold Lab test the dishes.

The results indicated high levels of mold in almost every classroom tested. After hearing about the tests, the Beaufort County School District brought in AAA Environmental, an independent consulting company from Spartanburg, to do its own tests. The results will be presented November 11 in a public meeting.

John Williams, executive director of communications for the Beaufort County School District, said the district is constantly monitoring indoor air quality.

"It's not that a parent brought this up and then we started paying attention -- we are always paying attention," he said.

Williams also said he was very sorry that some students were sick, but that the problem does not appear to be widespread.

"On average, Hilton Head Elementary has seen 11 sick students per day out of almost 2,100 who attend daily," he said. "That seems to indicate a remarkably healthy student body."

Paul Carstens, the school district's director of maintenance, said custodians should be constantly checking for indicators of mold.

"My policy is that if you see a wet ceiling tile, report it, find the source and fix it," he said.

Dr. George Graham, a micologist who is owner and CEO of Tennessee Mold Labs, spoke at Thursday's meeting about indicators of mold and the problems that elevated levels of mold can cause. Dizziness, irritability, headaches, itching, tremors, vomiting and coughing are all common symptoms, he said.

Walt and Katherine Raczkowski, Battery Creek High School parents, said they had trouble with mold in their home. The whole family was sick, Walt Raczkowski said, and their daughter started taking Ritalin and had to wear glasses. Once they fixed the problem, she was able to stop taking the medication.

Since their daughter has been at Battery Creek High School, her problems have returned. Her attention span has "gone out the window" and her grades have gone down, Katherine Raczkowski said.

"I believe if we could get her out of that environment, she would get better," she said.

Graham said that many times a home or school can have elevated levels of mold but not know because it is not visible.

"As a general rule," Graham said, "if you can see it, the hiding places are full."

Fixing mold problems doesn't have to be expensive, he said, but it is important to find the source of the problem, not just clean or cover the visible mold.

"If someone gets a splinter," Graham said, "it doesn't matter how great the bandage is, you still have to get the splinter out."

Battery Creek High School is already in the process of fixing their mold problem, cleaning and sealing ducts and getting ready to install an extensive dehumidifying system.

But the Raczkowskis said the anti-microbial paint they are using to seal the ducts is only making things worse. When they went to the school for a parent-teacher conference, Katherine Raczkowski had to leave because she became so dizzy from the fumes.

"It invades your body," she said.

Williams said there had been some complaints about extra sensitivity to the paint, so the district brought in the Occupational Saftey and Health Administration to inspect.

Some parents at the meeting raised concerns over how the testing at Hilton Head Elementary was handled by the school district. The rooms were cleaned before they were tested, the parents said, and the air filters had been changed very recently.

Carstens said the cleanings were no different than any other cleaning, and the air filters were due to be changed. He said the filters have been changed four times this year. The goal is to do it every two months, though the filters are designed to last three months, he said.

The filters at Hilton Head Elementary School should have been changed earlier, Carstens said, but the replacements were damaged. The district ordered new filters and changed them when they arrived.

"I didn't want to wait another month," he said.

Graham said the tests should be conducted under "normal" conditions, but changing the air filters would not change the test results substantially.

Title and other parents also expressed concerns about how long the laboratory is taking to return the test results. The tests were taken in late September, and the results will be presented in a public forum on Nov. 11 when recommendations will be made about how to fix the problem.

Until then, Hilton Head Elementary School is "operating as best we can," said Mary Briggs, the school's principal.

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