Why Johnny Canít Breathe

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

But there's something else in those corridors--and in the classrooms, offices, even the lockers. The typical school building, experts say, is home to a unique collection of contaminants. A 1998 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists everything from chalk dust to "fungi, bacteria, and viruses brought to the school environment by children and adults, and vapors and fumes from chemistry laboratories, wood-working shops, and art classes." A 1997 article in the trade magazine Contractor puts it more bluntly: "Most complaints about indoor-air quality come from occupants of office buildings," it reads. "Few office buildings, however, have the potential for bad indoor air as schools do. Not many office buildings have science labs or hamster cages, not to mention vomiting second graders."

Pat Budd isn't terribly concerned about the occasional bout of barfing or clump of gerbil hair. When the English as a Second Language teacher takes inventory of Edison's environmental hazards, she begins with the diesel fumes.

A talkative woman with brown hair cut in a clean bob, Budd commences a tour of her school by pointing at an air vent: During the 1998-'99 school year, she explains, staffers noticed that every morning and midafternoon the entire building smelled like a parking ramp. It turned out that during a recent upgrade of the ventilation system a fresh-air intake had been placed right beside the spot where school buses idled at the curb. After teachers complained a timer was added to the system, shutting down the air intake at the times when bus traffic is heaviest.

Brian Stauffer

Next, Budd stops at a door leading into a space no larger than three economy cars. Inside, a teacher is watching a gaggle of kids scribble in their notebooks. "I've heard that these rooms are supposed to have two or three students at a time," says Budd. "How many do you have?"

"Nineteen," answers the teacher. "I have 19, first hour. I don't think there's any ventilation. During the summer it gets so hot in here, I want to expire."

Like a hospital in a war zone, Edison has found ways to cram people into every nook, cranny, and closet; it's one strategy, district officials say, to cope with a population growing by about 1,000 students per year citywide. Half a dozen new schools have been added in the past five years, and two more are scheduled for completion by 2001. But quarters remain tight. "We're using more and more spaces in these old buildings," Budd says. "Places that were originally closets and storage rooms."

Not that regular classrooms are any picnic. Last year, Budd says, she asked for an air-quality test in her own room; it had always seemed stuffy in there, she explains. According to school-district documents, two separate measurements showed high levels of carbon dioxide, which can be an indicator of faulty ventilation.

The Minneapolis schools follow air-quality standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). According to the guidelines, carbon-dioxide concentrations are best kept under 1,000 parts per million (ppm), and levels above 1,200 warrant corrective action. Budd's room registered at 1,140 ppm in one test, 1,400 in another. Yet an EH&S memo noted that "the air quality is good." (District environmental health specialist Lee Setter says that in retrospect, the second reading does seem high; but, he notes, the school's ventilation system has since been fixed).

But stale air and diesel fumes were nothing compared to what Edison faced on July 1, 1997, when Minneapolis saw its biggest rainstorm of the decade. At Edison, a giant sinkhole opened near the music department's storage room in the basement. Sewage-laced water poured in, rising to six feet in some places. The school lost most of its books, TV sets, computers, band instruments, and sports equipment. The kitchen, several gyms, and the boiler room were ruined. To this day, staffers at Edison adhere to a diluvial calendar: Events are referred to as having taken place "before the flood" or "after the flood."

The building was so badly damaged that officials figured it might not reopen its doors that fall. But the teachers insisted that classes begin on schedule. "We struggled--no library books, no computers or equipment," says Budd. "The kids were eating bag lunches, and the entire building was like a construction zone.

"Looking back, I think that it would have been safer for students and teachers to have waited," she continues. "Filters got thick with dust and dirt all last year. And some of us were really sick." Budd says she experienced dizziness, sinus problems, and a new sensitivity to chemical odors. Many of her fellow teachers had similar problems, she says, but they muddled through.

That changed when school opened again in September 1998. Teachers who'd felt better over the summer break found themselves getting sick again. By November of that year, they had assembled a petition to the school district, demanding a full-fledged investigation of the building. One column in the handwritten document contained 21 teachers' names, while the other detailed an exhaustive list of symptoms: memory loss, nausea, lack of appetite, congestion, dizziness, asthma, sinus drainage, skin rashes, coughs, itchy eyes, blurry vision, headaches, stomachaches, moodiness, fatigue, sore throat.

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