Schools to get rid of mold and asbestos

Work crews will spend the summer fixing mold and asbestos problems at Seattle Public Schools.

Crews plan to replace about 1,600 ceiling tiles and pieces of plasterboard at Nathan Hale High School after a leaky roof led to mold growth. They also will try to get rid of pooled water under a classroom at Arbor Heights Elementary School after earlier attempts failed.

Many other schools could be added to the work list as the district completes a survey measuring the quality of indoor air at its nearly 100 schools.

The survey, launched in March, attempts to pinpoint water leaks and mold problems as well as measure carbon-dioxide levels. So far, 62 schools have been tested and about one-third earmarked for closer inspection. Of 11 schools revisited by experts, two were deemed to require immediate attention. The district removed mold from the two schools — High Point Elementary and Washington Middle School — and plans further work to fix the water leaks that led to the problems.

The fix at Arbor Heights can't come soon enough for teacher Robert Femiano, who first complained in December about poor air quality in four classrooms.

Femiano said he e-mailed people around the district but didn't get a response. Frustrated, he and other teachers filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor and Industries in April. That investigation remains open.

The district acknowledges it was slow to respond.

"There was absolutely a slow reaction, and that's unacceptable and we apologize for that," said spokeswoman Patti Spencer.

She said the district listened to concerned parents and took their suggestion of paying for an independent consultant.

The district already repaired leaks in a drinking-water line and heating pipes at Arbor Heights, and now officials wonder if something more fundamental, such as a rise in the water table, is causing the problems. If that's the case, the portable classrooms will be moved, Spencer said.

Femiano said he is concerned about the children's health.

"Some of the kids were getting sick with headaches, general malaise and cough problems," Femiano said. "The absentee rate was higher this year."

But school and health officials say some are overstating the effects of mold.

"Mold is ubiquitous in the environment. It's a good thing, and ecologically it has its place; otherwise we would be pretty deep in wood debris," said David Williams, a health and environmental investigator with Public Health — Seattle & King County. "The outdoor air at times has very high levels of mold spores."

Williams said that somewhere between 5 and 30 percent of people are more sensitive to mold, which can trigger allergies, worsen asthma and cause breathing problems.

Williams said symptoms usually disappear as soon as the mold is removed.

Spencer said that inspectors are also keeping an eye out for asbestos, which is generally removed from schools when it starts degrading or fraying. Asbestos, once used in insulation and tiles, is slowly disappearing from schools because buildings are constantly being upgraded and replaced, she added.

Last October, Labor and Industries fined Seattle Public Schools $5,400 for failing to ensure that damaged asbestos was repaired, removed or labeled at the old Lincoln High School building in Wallingford. Roosevelt High School students are being housed there while their school undergoes an $84.5 million renovation.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or