Why Johnny Canít Breathe

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

Ironically, all that fixing, renovating, and upgrading isn't necessarily good news for those who sniffle and wheeze their way through the school day. Anytime you mess with a building, notes the University of Minnesota's Blumenthal, you create pollution--even if the work is intended to improve indoor-air quality. Construction brings fumes and often liberates contaminants previously locked up. "You're destroying old walls that may have molds and dust," Blumenthal points out. "That gets in the air."


Looking back, Audrey Johnson wonders why she didn't notice sooner. Her fifth grader Lilli is "a hard-working, self-motivated girl who doesn't complain," she explains. "So it's sometimes hard for me to measure: Is she sick or not?"

Brian Stauffer

The problems began last February, when Lilli began coming home from school with headaches--and more. "She was going to bed at 7:30, wasn't hungry, had stomachaches," Johnson recalls. "And even after she'd gone to bed early, she'd get up and still be tired." If it had been her 11-year-old son, Johnson explains, she might not have worried. "But Lilli loves school--she hates to miss it. For her to say, 'I'm too tired, Mommy, can I sleep?' sets off all sorts of alarms."

In April, Johnson--a longtime DFL activist--happened to mention Lilli's problems in a phone conversation with a fellow DFLer. There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. Then the other woman, who happened to be a teacher in a north Minneapolis school, told Johnson what she'd heard about Lilli's building.

The site--Ramsey International Fine Arts, at 49th Street and Nicollet Avenue South--was in the midst of a gargantuan construction project aimed at replacing the entire heating, venting, and air-conditioning system, Johnson learned. The construction zone was supposed to be sealed off from the classrooms, but dust had been finding its way through the barriers, sometimes creating a visible haze in the hallways. It had gotten so bad that staffers had asked the district to supply dust masks for them. (EH&S documents confirm that the request was made, on April 7--and turned down. According to a note from environmental health specialist Setter to the school's union steward, "[B]ased on experience and investigations performed by EH&S, it has been determined that the use of respirators...is not required or necessary.")

Johnson was stunned. Like an estimated one in ten Minneapolis students, Lilli has asthma; she also suffers from cerebral palsy, a nerve disorder that among other things affects the function of the heart and lungs, making patients particularly vulnerable to bad air. School officials knew about both diagnoses, Johnson notes, since Lilli was registered with the school nurse's office. Yet no one had bothered to mention the construction to her.

On April 23 of last year, Johnson met with school officials, including environmental-health manager Meyer; she recalls telling them she was "shocked that as a parent these problems were never brought to my attention." Meyer responded that the school district had issued an alert about the construction. ("When things get sent home, they're sent home with children," he notes now.) Johnson countered that the only notification she'd received had been a brief mention in the school's newsletter--which, she pointed out, contained no reference to potential health problems.

Ramsey music teacher Margaret LaFleur, the union steward who requested the dust masks, says the construction didn't bother her much, but that teachers who had respiratory problems seemed to suffer. "[Administrators] said, 'We have this in place, that in place,'" she recalls. "But I could see the dust, smell the dust."

Things did change, LaFleur says, when Johnson raised a stink. "Anytime after Audrey's meeting, when we saw anything, we'd call and right away they'd come in. They'd say, 'If you need anything, just let us know.'" The district's Setter says officials have also changed their notification procedure: In the future parents will be alerted to any major construction projects through an official letter.

Setter has good reason to take Johnson's concerns seriously. In November she was one of four DFL-endorsed candidates elected to the Minneapolis School Board. When she takes her seat in January, Johnson says, environmental health issues will be among her top priorities.

"Parents who are worried about the conditions in schools will be able to get answers without getting the runaround," says the board member-elect. "The schools are always worried about liability, but I think that when you ask a question, you should get a simple answer. Right now the only way you'll get what you need is to threaten litigation or get involved." (School officials say they have heard of no lawsuits against the district over environmental-health complaints, though a few teachers have filed "initial reports of injury" in the workers' compensation system.)

Johnson's crusade, however, is no longer a personal matter. The air in Lilli's building, she says, has gotten "a lot, lot better," and her daughter is well--so well, in fact, she has been lobbying her mother to keep a low profile. "She says, 'Mom, don't complain--it embarrasses me,'" Johnson laughs. "She's at that age."

That's fine by Johnson, who says her recent education in the intricacies of air quality has left her with lots of concerns that don't involve Lilli's tale. She supports a legislative effort to require parental notification when pesticides and other toxic chemicals are used in schools. And she wants to know more about how air-quality standards are set. "All the measurements I've seen are calibrated for what an adult male can take," she points out. "So if the schools are saying that 1,000 ppm is considered safe for carbon dioxide, I want to know: Is that for adults? For kids? For kids with respiratory ailments?"

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