Toxic Schools

Mold problems are widespread in humid South Florida — affecting the health of teachers and students, while school boards throughout the region lag in solving the problem.

One South Florida teacher spent a year working in a damp classroom, well aware that mold was growing in the corners and ceiling and clinging to the walls. She filed complaints and documented incidents and responses. She developed a cold, a yeast infection, a virus, a respiratory illness. She was treated for allergies. She became so tired she couldn’t do anything but sleep when she was off work. She got what they call “foggy brain syndrome” — she just couldn’t concentrate on things long enough to solve them. There were indications of lupus. Finally her doctor told her she just couldn’t go back to that moldy room — it was ruining her health. Afraid to jeopardize her court-won pension and insurance settlement, she can’t reveal her identity, but she’s now on permanent disability. Although her health has improved since getting out of the moldy classroom, she experiences recurrences whenever she encounters any molds, chemicals, stress or even average physical exertion.

Her reaction was severe, but it demonstrates what long-term exposure to mold can do. Some people take longer to react to toxins in their environment than others, but it is not uncommon for immune systems to lose resistance to constant attacks. Children with immature systems and those already disabled with asthma and allergies are at particular risk.

Assessing the risk

If your child is in school, there’s at least some possibility of daily exposure to mold and mildew. Some studies estimate that half the public schools in this country have unsatisfactory air quality issues — and in humid South Florida, the incidence of mold in schools is potentially even higher. The exposure can cause serious health problems.

Jonathan Lawson, a sixth-grader at Western Pines Middle School in Royal Palm Beach, had to leave his classroom 14 times over the first 20 days of school, calling home and telling his mother he couldn’t breathe. “He tells me, ‘It feels like someone’s sitting on my chest — I can’t take it anymore,'” says his mother, Cynthia Lawson. “I’m very frustrated. He’s having such a hard time with his grades. It was the same last year at Golden Globe Elementary next door. The nurses saved Jonathan on more than one occasion.”

Problems like these are widespread in South Florida, and although school officials seem now to be addressing the problem, progress is slow.

“Schools have mold for a variety of reasons,” says Chris Skerlec, environmental control officer for Palm Beach County Schools, whose office investigates about 300 indoor air quality complaints a year. “Mold spores are everywhere. You cannot prevent them,” he says. However, “you can keep the humidity low, keep the place dry and clean. You can cure 95 percent of your air quality issues. It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe not, but it is expensive science. For example, 24 Palm Beach County schools were found to have a faulty air conditioning system designed by W.R. Frizzell. The firm filed bankruptcy before the school board could collect a judgment, so the school received only $450,000 in restitution. The Palm Beach Post reported that repairs on only ten of the affected schools were estimated to cost $20 million. Those funds were set aside, according to school board members, but only three of the 10 schools were fixed, with two more scheduled to be fixed this year.

A preliminary report to the Broward School Board suggests a potential cost of $2.5 billion to renovate schools with a variety of maintenance problems, including mold abatement. A capital improvement plan from 1998 committed $44 million to clean up mold problems in 155 schools over a five-year period, but an internal audit pointed up problems with meeting the plans goals last year.


Jeff Moquin, director of risk management for the Broward School Board, says that he deals with mold and moisture issues in the schools daily. “We have water intrusion through leaks or humidity issues with the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems. Some of these issues require design time, bidding the job out to a contractor and time to complete the work, and some of the money only became available this year. (Of those identified in the 1998 plan), we have 10 to 12 schools 100 percent complete, with 90 schools three-quarters done. Some are in the design phase, others are in construction.”

In Miami-Dade, “We’re looking at correcting mold situations at approximately 15 schools,” says John Schuster, spokesperson for Miami-Dade Public Schools. “It’s a range of things that need to be corrected. We find a lot of situations arise because we’re dealing with older buildings that may have older AC systems and/or water intrusion. It may be something as simple as replacing ceiling tiles to having to arrange a water seal for an entire roof.”

But involved Miami-Dade parents and teachers say the board is not doing nearly enough to keep the school buildings maintained. “The Miami-Dade public school district has squandered hundreds of millions of public dollars intended for school construction and maintenance. Meanwhile, it has grossly neglected the condition of virtually all of its school facilities,” says Surfside Mayor Paul Novack, who has been appointed to a state committee assigned to oversee Miami-Dade schools.


The Florida weather — damp, hot and humid — doesn’t help. Mold will grow here, just as it has always grown here. There are at least 1,000 types of fungus commonly found in North American buildings, and 200 are known to be harmful to humans. While it’s unlikely that the crud in your shower is harmful, exposure to certain mold strains can cause allergic reactions and illness in some people, including those who develop sensitivity after long-term exposure, such as teachers.

Dr. Herbert Moselle, an allergist in Plantation for the past 34 years, says there have always been mold problems, no worse today than they ever were. “I always have teachers — a minimum of 10 a week come through this office,” he says. Patients are first advised to eliminate their exposure to the allergen. The next line of treatment is with antihistamines and similar products, finally immunotherapy — shots administered weekly over a long period of time. But to treat for molds, doctors must identify the cause. If parents aren’t aware there’s a mold problem at school, it may take longer to determine what’s causing their child’s allergic symptoms.

Mary MacFie spent years taking her daughter Heather to specialists — even as far away as New York — but none were able to diagnose her vomiting, her migraines, her face so swollen she couldn’t see. Heather’s teachers suggested that her parents come talk to them, but MacFie thought there was no point: Doctors hadn’t figured out what was wrong with her daughter, what could they know? Finally a teacher took her aside and told her that many of the teachers at the school, the Western High Annex in Sunrise, were sick with the same symptoms.

“Mold, they told me. I said, ‘What are you talking about? Spray it with bleach, call the health department, call OSHA.’ ‘We have,’ they said. ‘It doesn’t do any good,'” MacFie says.

Teachers can be confined to the same classroom all day long for years on end. Even though their health is affected, many are reluctant to speak up.

One way to break through a bureaucratic wall is the American way, with lawsuits. Fort Lauderdale attorney Bob McKee represents 32 students and teachers across Palm Beach and Broward counties. “I get 100 calls a month, but I can only take on a few more cases each month. I think the way to represent is in a group suit,” McKee says.

John Countryman, assistant state attorney for Broward County, has interviewed more than 100 teachers and parents affected by mold in their schools in preparation of a report to be presented to a grand jury for review this spring. A grand jury review of school construction in 1997 revealed an unsavory picture of funds wasted on inferior construction.

Rapid overdevelopment throughout South Florida called for quick schools. Tight budgets led to faulty design and shoddy work. In Palm Beach County, several schools’ mildew problems have been linked to a contractor that was fired from the job. In Broward, architect Donald Singer was held to blame for poor design of nine schools, and ultimately paid a settlement of $750,000. Architectural firm Miller, Meier, Kenyon and Cooper was responsible for the faulty design of another five Broward schools, but has gone out of business. In Miami-Dade, the list of contractor failures is embarrassingly long. “Over the last 19 years we’ve spent $6 billion on facilities alone,” Novack says, “yet the public has very little to show for that investment.”

Across all three counties, cleanup efforts have been piecemeal at best. The ceiling at Western High looks like a checkerboard of tiles of various ages, styles and colors because when mold got into the ceiling, tiles were replaced one at a time. But since mold spores are airborne and attach themselves to any organic material, including wood, paper, fabric and carpets, this has proven an ineffective means of eradicating the problem.

“We had mushrooms growing on the floors from the moisture seeping up,” says Dick Keen of his portable classroom at the Western Annex. “My throat swelled up, lymph glands were hurting and I was missing a lot of school. I went to the allergist and he told me it was mold, no doubt about it. Finally my floor got so weak a student stepped right through it. When they pulled it up there was a half-inch of this gelatinous slime. They replaced it in pieces, and with the same wood. The worst thing is they’re thinking about putting kids back in those portables.”


Palm Beach County school officials say they’re dealing with problems as they find them, although they are reluctant to admit any real problems exist. “We did find mold present at Banyan Elementary School three years ago and replaced the air conditioning system. Since then we have looked at all of our other schools with similar air conditioning systems, but have not found any other problems,” says spokesman Nat Harrington. Meanwhile, Cynthia Lawson is left to wonder why her son can’t breathe at the Royal Palm school he attends.

The board has partnered with the American Lung Association in its Asthma Free Schools project, providing air-quality training to staff at 20 schools last year and 20 more this year. “The schools are doing what they can,” says Cindy Vallo, with the American Lung Association of Southeast Florida. “The key is to prevent mold by keeping things clean and dry. If you’ve got a leak, fix it and make sure it’s dried within 24 hours.”

The Broward School Board, under pressure from the state attorney’s office, is developing another maintenance, repair and construction plan that includes mold and mildew remediation throughout the district. A new bidding prequalification process helps to eliminate incapable construction companies, and new schools have been designed with mold and mildew prevention in mind. Open breezeways and classroom windows provide better ventilation and most floors are tiled rather than carpeted. Thermostats are monitored and teams work full-time maintaining heating and air conditioning ventilation systems. Broward Superintendent Frank Till recently announced a plan to hire an administrator who will be responsible for addressing mold issues. Some view the move with relief; others see it as another stalling tactic that will delay progress.

“Many existing schools are in need of substantial repairs, and the longer it takes, the greater the cost,” says Assistant State Attorney Countryman. “A huge percentage of our taxes goes toward our schools, and I don’t think most people begrudge that. The question is how it’s being spent.”

Similarly, in Miami-Dade County, teachers and parents charge that an unresponsive board has left schools to deteriorate year after year. “Many school districts just don’t have the money, but here in Miami-Dade County that’s not the problem at all. There are billions of dollars flowing every year. They just can’t seem to produce results with that money,” Novack says. “The only questions the policy makers are considering are: Do they fix it or do they continue to ignore it? That’s not a choice. You must fix these buildings that are occupied by thousands of students every day.”

The Miami-Dade school safety department offers principals a checklist to help them deal effectively with mold problems. Several principals — including Jeanne Friedman, principal at Miami Beach Senior High where Novack’s son attends school — said the department responded quickly to mold issues at their schools.

“The school districts have become experts at shunning parents away and discouraging their calls for improvement,” says Novack, who has collected a scrapbook of photos of mold problems in several schools. “The district has been operating in the dark for years, and they’ve been actively avoiding letting the public know what’s going on.”

The only real solution, says Dr. Moselle, is to tear down infected buildings and rebuild mold-resistant structures. “We have to spend the money up front and do preventive work, then we won’t have to keep tearing down schools and redoing them, and spending on medical care.”

Mary MacFie has worked with School Board members and others in the community to organize workshops to help inform parents about the dangers of mold and symptoms to watch for. Her daughter Heather, now 15, has moved on to Cypress Bay High in Weston, a new school built with mold prevention in mind. Her health is much improved now, but MacFie doesn’t rest. School administrators are on notice that her daughter may not be placed in a portable classroom. A grove of them stands next to the school ready to absorb the impending overflow.

“They’re swearing to me that my daughter won’t be put into a portable, but what about everybody else? Should I shut up when other people might be sick? I have people mad at me because I won’t stop talking about mold,” she says. “But I don’t know how to make people realize how serious this really is. The children’s health is at risk, and the teachers’ health is at risk.”


It is clear that parents and other concerned citizens must join the effort to clean up our schools. “I wish we had parental involvement,” says West Kendall media specialist Karen Sick, “because once the parents start screaming, the district starts listening.” Part of the problem, she says, is that parents don’t realize there are health problems at the school. “A parent walking into our school wouldn’t see the health problems that the teachers are having. Their kids might come home with symptoms but they think it’s the flu or allergies.”

Paul Novack agrees. “Let the public know we don’t have to accept the status quo — if they can’t provide a safe and secure environment for our children, we are not helpless to change things. What’s most important is the well-being and education of our community’s children.”

By Trish Riley


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