Dangerous Mold Growing in an Oklahoma School

Friday, February 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It started last summer, with a leaky roof. Not unusual for an old, flat-topped public school. It has grown... into an issue that is dividing a community.

Dwight Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of Okmulgee schools said, "It was called to our attention down here in central office that we had mold growing in several of our classrooms. We went and investigated it, we made contact with some consultants to come down and take a look at it and see exactly what we could do about it."

Okmulgee Public Schools contracted with doctor Estelle Levetin at the University of Tulsa.

In November, Levetin reported evidence of contamination by a dozen different fungi - some of which CAN cause serious health problems.

Martha Bryant, former Okmulgee Teacher remarked, "This year, headaches started. And sometimes it takes me as long as 3 to 4 days to get rid of them."

"And then my lung capacity's gone down so I get real short of breath. It's almost like I'm panting - and that sends my heart rate through the ceiling."

Martha Bryant just resigned from Okmulgee High School after 23 years as a biology instructor. She says her health is improving, but now she worries about her FORMER students. "Some got sick immediately because they're so allergic to the mold.” Bryant claims, “And they just started missing school - and I mean, had to drop out of class because they were too sick to come to school."

Terry McKnight is a student who is now homebound, he recalls, "I started having breathing problems and real bad headaches. I started falling asleep a lot in class. I had an obstruction in my lungs and my doctor mostly said that the headaches and my breathing problems were related to the school building."

His mother, Mary Stanfield, added, "And going to bed a lot sooner than he should be. And then he started coughing up a lot of stuff from his lungs, but on the weekend, and it would progress during the week through school but on the weekend, Sunday would roll around and he'd start feeling better."

After Terry McKnight’s doctor pulled him out of school, he started feeling better almost immediately.

Mary Stanfield remarked, "So I watched him really really close, and he hasn't been sick at all. He's not on his asthma medication. He doesn't have to have inhalant, he hasn't had one ibuprofen, no migraine headache pills, nothing."

McKnight isn't the only student who talked with us about recent health problems. As requested, we're hiding this student's identity.

Anonymous Student: "I was short of breath, and I had headache and my muscles were really tight."

The student was taken to the hospital – where once again, doctors attributed the symptoms to mold exposure.

Anonymous Student: "I mean I just, don't really think it's right for us to have to go to school there. I mean getting hurt and stuff, because it's hurting us."

The health risks were clearly spelled out in this T-U report back in November - with some specific recommendations...

The first one being, repair all roof leaks.

Home video shows roof workers making repairs as late as last week. School officials say they are still taking bids for other parts of the building.

The second TU recommendation was that clean-up workers wear respirators.

An employee who asked to remain anonymous told us that did not happen, and that they "were not" warned about potential hazards.

Anonymous Building Cleaner: "Several of them got sick. They had runny eyes, runny noses and headaches. They had to quit working."

Martha Bryant added, "It was just the custodians - taking the ceiling tiles down. And cleaning up you know the water, and everything. Mopping it up. But I haven't seen anybody at the high school with protective gear on."

Even more troubling, our sources claim that the clean-up has been taking place when students are in school... something the T-U report recommended against.

Anonymous Building Cleaner: "Some of the trash was hauled out in garbage cans that were uh, on little wheels. We had to go through the lunchroom in order to get that to the dumpster. So they weren't covered or anything. They were left open."

When presented with the comments from the building cleaner, Dwight Wilson, Okmulgee Public Schools replied, "I'm not aware of that. I did not supervise the cleanup over there; (but) is it appropriate to drag it through the cafeteria? Oh no, no."

Dr. Estelle Levetin, The University of Tulsa: "That's why I recommended a professional remediation firm do the cleanup. People who don't know are going to do things like that. And it should have been handled by a professional remediation."

TU also recommended Okmulgee Schools further inspect the area above the ceiling called the "plenum."

Dwight Wilson, Okmulgee Public Schools: "They came in and tested, and they asked to come back in 30 days and they was gonna come back again. And I'm not sure on the time frame, but they will be back to test and make sure that we get this...okay now this was Randy Smith's firm, because Randy Smith said that he...no this was uh, Dr. Levetin. Dr. Levetin said that she has not been between the ceiling and the roof...okay, okay...she has not checked the plenum area...okay. I can't answer that question then at this point."

But many in Okmulgee want answers. Why are children still living with potentially hazardous mold? Why have the T-U recommendations not been followed? And, why was there no notice given to those at greatest risk?

Terry McKnight, commented, "Pretty much kind of upsets me. Because you would expect some kind of a warning about it you know?" His mother Mary Stanfield added, "Well I'm very disappointed in the school, because I've went and talked to the superintendent about it, and I've went and talked to the school board face-to-face, and I haven't gotten any response whatsoever on what they're gonna do."

Employees say they're taking a chance in coming forward.

Martha Bryant, Former Okmulgee Teacher: "Well when you start getting sick, and you see so many other people sick - you know, you'd rather take up for what's right. I could get in more trouble but I don't know - I'm not going to worry about it."

Anonymous Building Cleaner: "Well the kids. I don't want the kids getting sicker than they already are. They've already been some that's been sick and hospitalized or whatever."

Okmulgee High School is not the only building affected by poor air quality indoors. Schools and government buildings all over the country are closing their doors until harmful mold can be cleaned up.

Experts say the study of fungal contamination is growing. Here’s what former Biology teacher Martha Bryant has to say about stachybotrys [STAK-ee-BAH-truhs] - one of a dozen molds the University of Tulsa found at Okmulgee High School. "It produces a toxin that compromises your immune system, so diseases like cancer can move in. The toxin also affects your memory. It can kill your neurons and the rate at which it kills them depends on how you react to the toxin."

Dr. Estelle Levetin, The University of Tulsa added, "You had cladisporium, aspergillus, penicillium, altineria found on this sample. Those have solid data as causing allergies and asthma. So why pick on this stachybotrys which doesn't have a lot of data, to suggest that it could trigger asthma when you have all these others that clearly, could cause problems."

Documented problems like allergic rhinitis, headaches, nosebleeds, fever, severe skin rashes, immune system suppression, malaise, lung infections and ear infections.

Randy Smith, Tulsa Allergy Store said, "You know, we don't have a meter that can tell okay this kid's going to go reactive at this level. This kid's going to go reactive at that level. And so, at what point do we issue a warning?"
There is currently no regulation for mold.

So when potentially harmful molds like stachybotrys turn up - it may be up to the public to take action.

Indoor air quality experts say many fungi can cause allergic reactions, so it's best to remove any visible mold with a bleach and water mixture. For large amounts of mold, contact a professional with experience in mold remediation.