H.B. Lee Middle School sits in Gresham. It was built 50 years ago and is showing its age — it’s dusty and there’s lead in the water and in the paint.
Still, teacher Mark Hardin loves the school, especially the library.
“It has really excellent acoustics and one of the reasons it has great acoustics is all that popcorn asbestos all around the walls,” he said. “That’s why there’s nothing posted up on those walls because they’re all 1966 technology. And it’s fine, so long as we keep it sealed.”
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
Hardin remembers a few years ago that so many kids got headaches and respiratory problems in one classroom that it ended up being known as “the sick room.”
“Kids couldn’t be in there and we moved the class into the library and spent a month trying to figure out what was making that room have a weird smell and make kids feel sick,” he said.
“We found out that the paint that had been painted on the walls had been stored. And it was OK. But when it was put on the wall, it bloomed.”
Hardin said the room smelled like a cross between a barn and a pot plantation. The culprit turned out to be mold.
And while no direct link to health problems was ever made to that mold, Hardin says the class pet — a naked mole rat named Ramsey — died of a respiratory condition while living there.
Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana works in the Pediatric Environmental Health Unit with the University of Washington.
She said mold isn’t usually that bad, but it can be. Schools aren’t required to routinely test for mold.
She said different children react differently to different environmental issues. It’s quite possible to have a moldy room where 25 children are just fine, but the 26th suffers badly.
“There are children who have more sensitivity to certain agents compared to others,” Sathyanarayana said.
That’s why it’s all but impossible to rank environmental concerns.
Lead and radon have gotten all the attention recently: Oregon lawmakers began requiring districts test for radon last year, and new requirements for lead are likely coming next legislative session.
But Sathyanarayana and other experts say it’s often not the obvious issues that effect the largest number of kids.
In fact, the biggest problem she sees is everyday dust. Poor ventilation systems cause allergies, asthma and respiratory infections.
Across the country, children with asthma missed close to 14 million school days in 2013. And Oregon has one of the worst rates of chronic absenteeism in the nation.
Dr. Ben Hoffman with the Oregon Pediatrics Society said it’s right for parents to worry about lead and dust and asbestos and radon. But he cautions, those worries need to be put in perspective.
“The point is that the most dangerous time in a school child’s day is transport to and from school,” Hoffman said.
After car crashes, he said the biggest threat to kids is drowning, then falls, suicide and then poisoning — whether it’s young kids eating washing machine soap tablets or teenagers raiding the medicine cabinet.
Only then come problems caused by environmental issues, said Hoffman.
“It’s really easy to worry about things that are emotional and scary,” he said.
Measuring environmental problems and knowing how much exposure is harmful is key, according to Hoffman.