Anxiety circulates on air circulation

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Uncertainty still lingers after the detection of hazardous chemicals found last August, despite the school administration’s statement that the building is safe.

Tests conducted by district-hired McCabe Environmental Services revealed high levels of several volatile organic compounds (VOCs)– 1, 2, 4- trimethylbenzene and benzene. 

Trimethylbenzene is a compound found in everyday items, such as dyes and gasoline. Although it is a common chemical, it is nevertheless listed on the New Jersey Department of Health Right to Know Hazardous Substance List: Contact with trimethylbenzene irritates the eyes, throat, and lungs, potentially resulting in dizziness, vomiting, anxiety, and allergy or asthma-like reactions. It also may worsen existing respiratory conditions. There is limited research to prove or disprove carcinogenic behavior.

The school states that experts have deemed the concentrations in the building to be not harmful. The experts suggested increased ventilation.

“I know trimethylbenzene 124 is an irritant, it’s common in the air,” former district superintendent Paula Valenti said. “Benzene, that’s a whole different story.”

Benzene is not only a carcinogen, but a mutagen and a teratogen. Frequent exposure causes mutation of body cells that may result in birth defects, miscarriages, and cancer, especially leukemia. It is also registered on the Hazardous Substance List.

On Aug. 18 and Sept. 16, 2016, McCabe Environmental Services placed SUMMA canisters in the courtyard, rooftop, several offices, classroom D212, and various locations throughout the media center. These canisters collect an air sample over a 24 hour period and then are sent to a lab to be analyzed. McCabe conducted a third test using a photoionization detector (PID).

The industrial limit for trimethylbenzene according to the USEPA is 7.3 μg/m3. McCabe reported 82 μg/m3 in the media center upper lobby.

They also reported levels of benzene ranging from 0.69 μg/m3 to 1.0 μg/m3. Only two canisters detected no benzene. Although the applied industrial limit is 1.6 μg/m3, the residential limit is 0.36 μg/m3, which the majority of the samples exceed.

McCabe’s most recent testing on June 30 and July 13 indicated that 22 VOCs were detected above the laboratory minimum limit, but only nine of which were detected in outside air. This was determined using eight summa canisters, the same tools used in the August 2016 test.

Of the eight locations tested, seven exceeded the USEPA limit of 3.10μg/m3. The three media center locations tested all reached 150μg/m3.

Many parents believe that, because the school is populated by many children, the residential limit is more appropriate. Industrial buildings, such as  factories or construction sites, require intense ventilation systems, masks, and other precautionary measures to protect from chemical inhalation. The school does not boast these industrial precautions. 

Julie Cunningham, a Glen Rock mother, attended the  Board of Education Meeting on Nov. 21, 2016. She commented on the inapplicable industrial limit.

“We have children of all ages, some as young as ten who come here, all the way through senior adults who are in this building. People of all health conditions, people in this building have cancer, lyme disease, asthma, several other health conditions. I know I would want for my child to have the most restrictive standards,” Cunningham said.

Photo Credit: Kate Casey
1, 2, 4- trimethylbenzene is a volatile organic compound (VOC) abundantly found in GRHS/MS media center. It causes allergy like symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and dizziness.

Dissatisfied by the results, the staff requested further testing to determine not only the presence of the VOCs, but also the source. A group of teachers and other staff members formed their own Health and Safety Committee in hopes to organize their intentions. When denied by the administration, they were forced to go through their union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), and pay for their own testing.

The lack of information is unnerving to many employees because they don’t know where in the building they can feel safe from VOCs. Many teachers are hesitant to bring their classes to the media center.

The NJEA brought in Working Environment Council of New Jersey, commonly known as WEC. They used a PID to detect possible sources of the VOCs in the media center. Levels spiked near exposed insulation caused by a gap in between the ceiling and roof.

WEC, McCabe, and other school officials met and came to the agreement to increase air flow until they could remediate.

McCabe recommended the installation of charcoal ventilation filters, increased ventilation, the repair of gaps in roof, and retesting.

In hopes for a confirmation that air circulation substantially increased, Ms. Lauren Mitchell, media specialist, attached tape and tissue to the media center vents. Unfortunately, only one tissue showed any movement.

“We put tape in the back room where Mr. Warren used to work, and the tape never moved. We put tissues on a number of vents here and none of them moved except one in the corner. So for the good majority of the year we were under the impression that the air circulation had been increased,” Mitchell said. “If you were home and you wanted to turn your volume up, you check and listen if the volume went up, you don’t just assume you turned it up. So, if you are only getting it out of one vent then that means either the knob is broken or they are connected wrong or not connected at all.”

Mitchell explained her findings at the May 8 Board of Education meeting. The following day Mitchell returned to work, only to find that her tissues had been removed.

Superintendent Valenti claims it was only a coincidence that the tissues were removed after Mitchell publicly shared her findings.

“She wasn’t authorized to put them up. It wasn’t a controlled experiment, she didn’t work with our facility staff on this.” Valenti said. “If there was something to be gained and something to be done and something to be learned, if there was a desire, then it should have been discussed.”

According to the administration, the trimethylbenzene issue has been solved due to the increased air circulation.

The issue for the media center staff is personal.

Three staff members in the media center area were diagnosed with cancer. Mitchell is now the only former staff member working full time there; she has been joined this year by a new Media Center Specialist Kim Hayes.

“Mr. Warren left a number of weeks ago. Ms. Hartman was out last year and this year she was out from November,” Mitchell said. “Mrs. Kopeta is my fourth substitute.”

The community’s main request is for further testing. The previous results provided little information on the source of the VOCs and only surveyed a small number of classrooms.

The administration agreed to retest all previously surveyed areas this summer, but to the public’s dismay, it denied testing of any new rooms.

“We don’t believe there is a necessity to test other rooms, the rooms that we tested were random. They were controls and they were not a problem. We really do not have a problem,” Valenti said.

The canister left in classroom last fall D-212 surveyed 1.0 μg/m3 benzene, almost three times the USEPA residential level and the highest recorded level in the school. Young students and teachers use this middle school classroom for hours everyday.

Elaine Howe, a mother of two Glen Rock students, has followed the air quality issue from the very beginning. She attends and speaks up at the Board of Education meetings, and formed an email group where she summarizes these meetings to other Glen Rock parents.

“Is this an aberration, in a good way or a bad way? Maybe there are classrooms that are worse, but maybe the classroom was totally fine, and that would be great,” Howe said. “Mistakes do happen.”

The administration said the D-212 readings were due to the misuse of the ventilation system. Teachers using the room had placed books and other supplies on the vents, causing a lack of air circulation.

“It’s common sense that if you are going to cover the unit and not open the window that something will happen,” Valenti said.

Teachers are now required to clear their ventilation systems and open windows. Classrooms are periodically inspected for these provisions.

Howe also expressed concern on the benzene level indoors, as it was undetected in the outdoor courtyard.

Valenti, McCabe, and the rest of the administration insist that the benzene is caused by emissions from cars in the nearby parking lot. The administration is currently trying to establish a no-idle campaign.

Photo Credit: Kate Casey
A common source of trimethylbenzene and benzene are the emissions from idling cars, the administration claims this to be the primary source of the VOCs.

“If the outdoor air doesn’t have any benzene, then where is it coming from? Our outdoor air is fine, so it can’t be coming from there,” Howe said.

Howe suspects that the source of the danger is the VOCs combining with other chemicals in the air.

“When it’s in the presence of other compounds, such as ethyl, there are certain chemicals that when they’re together, they become hazardous. I think that there is some of that here,” she said.

According to New Jersey Department of Health, 1, 2, 4- trimethylbenzene and benzene are highly reactive with oxidizing agents (such as perchlorates, peroxides, permanganates, chlorates, nitrates, chlorine, bromine, and fluorine), and strong acids (such as hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric). Contact between these chemicals may result in fires, explosions, and the production of other toxic gases.

Valenti insists that there are no harmful chemicals in the science labs, even though they have never been tested.

“That’s not a chemical that is present in the air in a learning environment. Those science labs are brand new. They are state of the art,” she said. “If there was a safety issue, students and teacher would be notified to not use certain tools and chemicals.”