Why Johnny Canít Breathe

Sick kids, wheezing teachers, baffled administrators: Minneapolis schools encounter trouble in the air

The Kleenex ran out in February--and that, Terry Fritz figured, meant something was wrong. A veteran teacher at north Minneapolis's Henry High School, Fritz had long been in the habit of keeping a box of tissues on her desk. She'd ordered her normal supply at the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, figuring she'd have a little left over when school let out in the spring. "I have a pretty good grasp on how many Kleenexes my kids will use each year," she laughs.

But this time the kids didn't wait for cold season to dig into the stash. From the first day of school on, they snorted and sniffled their way through box after box. And Fritz herself was reaching deep into the separate supply of tissues she'd brought for her own use--which also seemed uncommonly frequent.

"I've always been a really healthy person," she explains. "So I'd think, 'I just need to eat better or get more rest and I'll be fine.' I remember thinking, 'I'll just take a little soak in the tub and I'll be okay.' But I kept getting sicker and sicker. I didn't know what it was, and I felt like I was always complaining."

Brian Stauffer

Fritz wasn't the only one who noticed. She says colleagues would come up to her during lunch break to ask, "What's wrong with you? You look horrible." A videotape made during a critique session showed her looking "like I'd been in a fight--big black circles around my eyes."

The condition was far from cosmetic. "My fingers were numb," Fritz recalls. "I was shaky. I never sit down, but I was sitting down all the time. I needed to; I was exhausted. We'd have a vacation and I'd start feeling better and think, 'Great, I'm on the mend.' Then I'd come back and I'd be sick again."

Maybe, Fritz reasoned, there was something wrong with the air in the room. She called the school district's Environmental Health and Safety Division (EH&S); staffers ran some tests and found nothing wrong. Next she cut a sample of the carpet and took it to an allergist. Lab tests detected "a high bacteria count, probably from fecal matter."

That's when she remembered the pigeons. All year they had huddled on the ledges outside her windows, and their droppings had piled up two or three inches deep. She had told an engineer in the building, who she says recommended that the gunk be removed "because people can get really sick from that." Janitors had sprayed the ledges with water, but their machine had backed up and the carpet had gotten soaked.

By early April, Fritz was in the hospital, diagnosed with the beginnings of meningitis--a disease that can be transmitted by bird droppings. "I woke up as I was starting to get better and looked around the room," she recalls. "All

I could see was used Kleenexes everywhere, on the table, on the floor, in the trash can. As far as I could see."

Fritz eventually went back to a freshly scrubbed and carpeted Room 312, and her symptoms didn't return. But she has never felt quite the same. "I've become really sensitive," she says. "If a janitor sprays a cleaner or something around here, my nose starts burning."

Fritz's story is far from unique. In the past few years, indoor-air quality has emerged as a major--and potentially expensive--concern for schools around the nation. A 1996 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that 22 percent of U.S. school districts surveyed reported "unsatisfactory" or "very unsatisfactory" indoor-air quality in at least some of their buildings. In Minnesota the figure was 30 percent--the seventh-highest in the country. The GAO report concluded that bad air was likely to affect student performance, and that "wide disparities in the physical condition of school facilities might contribute to inequalities" in education.

Locally, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers conducted a survey in 1997, asking school staffers whether they'd ever sought medical attention "as a result of environmental health-related issues at their school." One-third said they had, and an equal number said such problems had caused them to miss several days of school.

Officials say that in the two years since, Minneapolis has emerged as a leader in dealing with air-quality issues, putting together a multimillion-dollar renovation plan and creating construction guidelines for schools statewide. But the problem is not about to go away. In fact, says Audrey Johnson--a newly elected school board member whose daughter has suffered respiratory problems at school--the real challenge may still be ahead. "This has mostly been driven by complaints from teachers," she points out. "But we are wondering: If teachers--adults--are complaining, what about the kids?"


From the outside, northeast Minneapolis's Edison High bears the stately look of a classic city school: old brick, wide doors, lots of windows. It's a gorgeous late-autumn afternoon, and a few students are taking advantage of the weather in the alley, balling up notebook paper and beaning each other. Inside, corridors are lined with cheery blue and yellow lockers; sheets of construction paper announce who made the volleyball squad or the honor roll.

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