Portland teacher fights to fix school's air quality
In January 2018, the principal of Chief Joseph Elementary School in North Portland sent a letter to parents notifying them of "elevated" levels of carbon dioxide in classrooms, adding the levels were "well below" the allowable limits.
Principal Amber Gerber stressed that fixes by the Portland Public Schools district "should improve air quality over the next two weeks," and more repairs would follow over the summer of 2018.
If only the science was that clear, and the problem so easily fixed.
According to several experts consulted by the Portland Tribune, the elevated levels of carbon dioxide that turned up at Chief Joseph actually could be of concern, thanks to emerging research suggesting that even lower levels of carbon dioxide can affect how brains work. Some research has suggested a link between carbon dioxide — CO2 — and reduced student test scores and concentration.
And the issue at Chief Joseph has not died down, with a recent ruling by the Oregon Employment Relations Board, as well as an inspection and a subsequent hazard notice issued by the state Occupational Safety and Health Division last month.
The district has faced questions over clean air before, such as with Harriet Tubman Middle School's proximity to the proposed Interstate 5 expansion.
But unlike other questions raised about classroom air in Portland, the issue around Chief Joseph is significant because it is about the kind of poor air quality that often is overlooked — and is quite common in schools, experts say.
The elevated readings at Chief Joseph — confirmed in three different rounds of testing by the district, a consultant and the state — are "unfortunately not untypical" but are "obviously a concern," said John Spengler, a health researcher at the Harvard University Center for the Environment who conducted groundbreaking testing on the subject in 2016.
Two Washington state experts who have inspected thousands of classrooms in Washington and Oregon said the levels detected in Chief Joseph are not necessarily alarming — but teachers' complaints could reflect some other issues.
"Someone needs to get to the bottom of it," said Richard Prill, a retired Washington state indoor air quality specialist.
Problems surface in Portland
Chief Joseph was built in 1956 and is home to about 380 students, according to the district.
Rose Michels, a third-grade teacher at Chief Joseph, first noticed the problems in 2017, not long after the district's new roof went in. Some of her students had headaches and were drowsy. She had health problems of her own, and feared air quality could be contributing to them.
Other teachers complained, too — most of them, like Michels, on the school's second floor. The striking thing? The strong odor of mold.
Allison Shutt, a second-grade teacher at Chief Joseph, described air quality issues in her room. She noted the smell of mold and experienced headaches frequently.
"We had an intake from outside the classroom," Shutt said. "That was when we discovered it had been really moldy from bark chips. They cleaned that out for me."
She said she rarely opened the windows in her classroom, because usually it was too cold.
"It's hard for me to say what the cause was, but it was a low-grade, lingering headache and persisted daily," Shutt said.
The district found that Michels had no ventilation in her room at all for months — sparking urgent requests by the principal, Gerber, and the Portland Association of Teachers at different points in 2018, documents show.
The district brought in a consultant for the first of three rounds of testing. The district says the first round of readings found as much as 1,750 parts per million of carbon dioxide — the same level shared with parents at Chief Joseph by Gerber.
Michels, for her part, says she saw readings on some of the monitors that reached 2,000 parts per million or more.
Carbon dioxide concerns
Carbon dioxide in schools is produced mainly by people breathing.
State and federal standards generally cite a decades-old regulatory maximum of 5,000 parts per million for carbon dioxide, while calling for a recommended maximum closer to 1,000 parts per million.
But some experts say that standard is based on outdated science meant for factory workers.
"That standard was developed a long time ago and it was based on body odor and comfort. It had not a lot to do with health," said David Mudarri, the retired head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency indoor air quality program.
The problem explored by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers in 2012 was that carbon dioxide temporarily affects the way the brain functions — and in the short term it significantly affects test scores of all kinds of brain function, as levels rise toward 2,000 parts per million and above.
Harvard research by Spengler and others found the problem to be even more significant.
The New York Times wrote about the effects of carbon dioxide last month in an article titled "Is conference room air making you dumber?"
In the Harvard study, "As levels of carbon dioxide rose from 550 ppm to 945 ppm to 1,400 ppm, subjects' scores under most headings declined substantially," the article said.
One study author called the impacts of carbon dioxide "really quite dramatic ... when all we did was make a few minor adjustments to the air quality in the building."
Mudarri, the former EPA air quality expert, takes the new science seriously. He called it "really important that some new studies have shown that CO2 itself is a problem — at pretty low levels."
Spengler said "the greatest concern of mine is what we're subjecting our kids to — and the teachers that have to work in these conditions. ... We're talking about their ability to learn."
Not everyone is convinced of the link between carbon dioxide and brain functioning.
Richard Corsi, dean of Portland State University's Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, is, like the researchers at Harvard and Lawrence Berkeley, considered an expert on indoor air pollution. Corsi is skeptical of the link between CO2 and reduced student test scores and concentration, but says high levels of CO2 are indicators of other air quality issues and increase the risk for viruses to spread through the air.
"I don't think carbon dioxide itself is the problem," Corsi said, calling studies on the subject "relatively inconclusive."
Like other experts in the field, though, he's firm that carbon dioxide is worth looking at.
"If CO2 levels are elevated, there might be other things that are present," he said. "When you have elevated carbon dioxide levels in the classroom from children, that basically means the space isn't ventilated well enough to remove the amount that's generated from children."
The solution? More ventilation.
District: No CO2 inspection protocol
But without stricter standards by the state or federal government, school officials say there's not much they can do.
PPS does not have a process for routine inspections and they aren't actively tracking CO2 levels in classrooms. Instead, PPS relies on a "complaint-driven" system for repairing and inspecting sites.
Joe Crelier, risk management services director for PPS, said the district does have more than a dozen CO2 monitors, and some newer schools have built-in monitors to adjust the blend of air coming in, but the majority of Portland's schools are several decades old.
Additionally, issues like stuffy classrooms aren't a priority for the district, which has focused heavily on monitoring environmental issues such as lead in drinking water, radon and asbestos, to stay compliant with state and federal laws.
"If there's a work order for lights out or water leaking, it's gonna be higher than 'it's stuffy in here,'" Crelier said.
He noted that school districts aren't likely to track issues like poor ventilation or indoor air quality without a legal directive.
"For better or worse, a lot of it comes down as legislative rules," Crelier said.
He did acknowledge the district's own working standards for CO2. "We would want to see an indoor quantity of 1,100 ppm or less."
Francis Koster, head of a group in North Carolina called The Pollution Detectives, uses and loans out carbon dioxide meters to test school air quality in his state — a program he hopes to take national. He said the situation in Oregon sounds typical, as most states lack school air standards — and those that exist are mostly weak. The situation at Chief Joseph, he added, sounds nowhere near as bad as some of the places he's tested. It's an opportunity, he said: "They can improve the standardized test scores."
Chief Joseph problems linger
At Chief Joseph, district facilities workers found even more significant problems later in 2018 after the kids went home for the summer and they opened up the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
Emails between staff noted a massive build-up of debris around the systems in many upstairs rooms. When environmental health and safety personnel requested a bucket lift to finish cleaning out caked-on dust and debris, another staffer responded that the equipment was tied up at other project sites and advised the work done so far was good enough.
"The South upstairs rooms may not test as well as the others, but are improved and should be now within compliant ranges, despite the incomplete cleaning," Newt Phillips wrote in an email to Peche Barteaux, an environmental health associate with the district, in July.
However, for teachers who showed up for school last fall, the problems were not solved.
Alicia Nguyen marked her first year of teaching at the elementary school this past school year.
She alerted school administrators of a mold smell permeating her classroom, and a maintenance crew narrowed down the source as a wall that had water damage.
Even after the wall was fixed, Nguyen said, the smell plagued her classroom throughout the year.
"It was very muggy, a lot of kids noticed it," Nguyen said. "I would have teachers come in and they could not be in my room. They'd say, 'I can't breathe in there.'"
Nguyen described a perpetual "musty smell" combined with a lack of fresh air and high room temperatures.
"There's no fresh air," Nguyen said. "I definitely couldn't be there after school. I would just leave. I physically just couldn't be in there. Even when the windows were open, there was no fresh air in the room."
Michels also continued to complain about the air quality, and eventually filed a complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board in December 2018.
"The district's response to the health issue thus far is beyond concerning. Systemic checks on building health quality should be a priority for the district to ensure that not only its staff but the students it serves are safe," she wrote.
The board rejected her complaint as lacking a legal basis in Oregon labor law, but she followed up with a complaint to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, which resulted in inspectors being sent to the school last month.
The state findings? That the average carbon dioxide level in Michels' room was less than 1,300 parts per million — and did not exceed the federal maximum that the state also enforces.
That said, the state did find the levels to be "somewhat elevated," and warned that a fine could ensue if problems continued.
"Employees complained of respiratory irritation and headaches while in the building," according to the notice. "It is highly suggested that engineering controls (i.e. ventilation) be improved upon in the classrooms."
The OSHA inspection report also noted employees were told that some heating vents at Chief Joseph hadn't been cleaned in 30 years.
Michels is not satisfied. She faults a lack of preventive maintenance, saying "absolutely ... all buildings (should be ) checked annually."
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