My Advice for Addressing a Mold Problem in Your Child’s School
One of the scariest things for a parent to face is the possibility of their child or children being exposed to dangerous levels of mold while at school. I mean, isn’t there is enough to have to worry about as a parent without having to put something like mold on your radar too? I wish that were the case, but, unfortunately, sick school buildings are a very real and a vey big problem in this country and around the world. Case in point, try to listen to or watch the news without encountering a “mold in schools” story. It is near impossible.
From where I sit these days, writing a mold blog and interacting with people and families facing mold problems in their homes, I hear about and “see” this problem on almost a daily basis. One day, I’ll hear from a teacher who became sick from mold in a school where they worked or are working, and the next, I’ll hear from a parent trying to navigate how to put their child back into school without further harming their health now that the child is mold-sensitive from experiencing a major mold exposure in a toxic home. Many parents who I speak with are even opting to home school, because it is a less stressful (for them and their child) alternative as they can fully control the physical environment at home. But, abandoning school buildings altogether is not a viable option for everyone. For example, many teachers cannot quit their jobs or transfer to other schools immediately just to escape a moldy environment to save their health. And, many families, especially those with a single parent or with two parents that work outside of the home, are not physically able to homeschool. Additionally, if a parent has been made sick by mold, sometimes they are not well enough to home school. Thus, the whole “schools and mold question” must be addressed.
To give a more personal spin to this issue, I would like to share some correspondence from a reader of the blog who was seeking guidance with a mold situation in her son’s school. Here is her email to me:
(Note: I have removed the writer’s personal and geographical references to protect her and her family’s privacy.)
We are still in the middle of this mold nightmare but taking it one day at a time. My son recently started figuring out that one classroom at school is making him sick. It’s the PE room, which he loves PE. He now gets a headache and nosebleed from walking in there. He says there are water stains on the ceiling. I have a conference with the school Friday. How do I handle this? Do you have anything I can print out for his teacher to help him understand what my son is going through? We live in a humid climate, and 50% of the buildings here have mold. I know exactly what restaurants, stores, even family and friends’ houses have mold now, because of how the mold affects me. I have no choice but to avoid them. But, in this case, it is a situation that my son can’t avoid. How do I handle my son’s school? He said his main teacher was allowing him to stay in his classroom and help out, but he is missing the PE work that he has to complete, and the teacher says it can’t continue. I figured out what was going on and asked my son about it. He tried to fix the problem himself as he knows what a difficult subject mold is. I think I need to get the principal involved at this point. I know her personally and know she will be honest, whatever the answer is. I contacted my environmental specialist who has been helping me with my house. He said the school has to get approval from the school board before testing can be done and this is not easy as schools don’t like to address mold. He told me that teachers have paid him to test their rooms, and that he has found black mold, but because they did not get approval from the school board, nothing could be done and the tests were invalid?!! I just don’t understand how this could be! My son will only be at this school till May. I’m not sure if the problem can be fixed by then. We do have several school options for next year. I will personally walk through each school before we choose one.
Thank you for any help or guidance you can give us.
Why is Mold Such a Problem in School Buildings?
My heart ached for this worried Mom and her sweet, problem-solving son. Mold in schools is a complicated subject. This young boy even “knows what a difficult subject mold is.” I wish that weren’t the case, but, sadly, it is. As a matter of fact, school buildings, in general, have become notorious for poor air quality, poor building maintenance, hidden and visible water damage, poor ventilation, and dirty mechanical systems. According to research done by Penn State, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that “almost three-fourths of existing US schools were constructed before 1970. Of these schools, about one-third had need of extensive repair or replacement and almost two-thirds had at least one inadequate building feature such as substandard plumbing, roofing, or electrical systems. Moreover, 58-percent had at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition such as inadequate ventilation, acoustics, or physical security.”
The additional piece of the puzzle that leads to problems with mold and bacterial growth is the large number of people congregating in and using these already unhealthy indoor spaces. Their breathing, coming in and going out, making and eating food, wet shoes and coats, sweating, etc. cannot be discounted. These elements, in and of themselves, increase indoor humidity and mold counts significantly. Without proper guidelines or mechanisms set up to preserve, enhance, and monitor indoor air quality, you are inevitably going to have a problem. As a matter of fact, a recent survey conducted about working environments of over 1,200 teachers by the Connecticut Education Association, puts some of these problems in better perspective. For the survey, teacher responses from 334 schools in 104 school districts were recorded. Teachers reported respiratory ailments, rashes, sinus problems and constant coughs. Those with asthma and allergies reported having more acute symptoms while at work or after work. Additionally, teachers described school building disrepair such as “water seeping up through floors, pouring down windows, and flooding classrooms when it rains; they also reported moldy, stained, sagging and broken ceiling tiles.” Mold was noted as a health concern in school buildings by an overwhelming 90% of respondents.
But, even with these workplace surveys being done and pointing to mold as a definite and recognized problem, teachers, faculty, and parents alike often have to join forces and fight tooth and nail to have school or government officials act to do anything about it. Even getting a school to submit to professional environmental testing or inspections is a feat. Like you read in the reader’s email to me above, teachers sometimes even try to take matters into their own hands and pay for testing themselves, thinking it may speed things along or provide the “proof” necessary to lodge a complaint. But, that doesn’t work, because they haven’t followed correct procedure or protocol. Conditions, unfortunately often have to deteriorate to the point of large areas of visible mold growth, or people getting sick in order for any action to be taken. It seems as if unhealthy school buildings and facilities are sort of the dark side of the educational system everywhere. In other words, everyone sort of knows that school buildings are particularly unhealthy, everyone wishes it would change, but no one really knows what can be done about it or how to go about doing it. After all, good indoor air quality comes at premium, and most schools just don’t have the money or the outside funding to do things to fix it, like install better ventilation, dehumidification or purification systems, use MERV 11 or higher filters, or clean and replace all of the ductwork when needed. Many schools are doing well to be able to pay their teachers and provide books and needed supplies—so, air quality? Who has the time or money for air quality, right? But what are we really subjecting our children to in buildings that are full of mold? Well, it is my opinion that we could be setting them up for a lifetime of chronic illness and health issues.
Children and Mold Exposure
A child’s immune system is developing from birth to adolescence and requires a natural, physiologic stimulation with antigens as well as inflammatory agents. Any disturbances of this normal maturing process will increase the risk for abnormal reactions to inhaled antigens and inflammagenic agents in the environment. Continuous exposure to mold and mold toxins increases asthma risk, the instance of inflammatory and autoimmune disease development later in life, creates cognitive and behavioral issues, and can lead to depression and anxiety. Mold toxins have also been shown to decrease or halt the production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) release and production. This could lead to stunted physical growth and development. Additionally, worth noting is the fact that children do not have detoxification mechanisms fully developed like adults. Thus, children’s bodies are much more affected by environmental toxins. This is why children can’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. They get dangerous build up of these toxins very quickly, because their bodies CANNOT clear and metabolize them like the bodies of adults. Breathing in mold everyday makes matters worse, because mycotoxins emitted by molds are more dangerous that alcohol and cigarettes combined! I could go on and on, and am just scratching the surface here. But, you get it–mold exposure is NOT good for anyone, but especially for children.
Why Isn’t Anyone Addressing the Problem?
I am often asked, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this issue? Why can’t we get schools to institute a policy on mold?” Well, the fact is that there are many factors that complicate tackling a mold problem in a school situation even harder:
- Mold is everywhere. I’ve said it once and I will say it again, even mold avoiders will encounter mold. It is part of the natural environment and plays an important role in decomposition and recycling of organic material. The problem with “toxic mold” is that it is thriving in an indoor environment where it has no natural place. It is there because of cross contamination or water damage and the decomposition of building materials. And, just like other pathogens that thrive in school settings, mold thrives too. It is tracked in from outside, brought in on the clothing and belongings of other people, and present from unaddressed or hidden leaks.
- There are no established standards or regulations for what safe levels of mold are in indoor environments. Without established rules and regulations, it is very difficult to point out that something is wrong or that anything needs to be fixed or changed. So, while, yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) have declared mold to be a health threat and high levels as unsafe in indoor environments, there are still no standards for schools or anywhere else for that matter. Although some states have instituted general mold laws—mostly for housing, and some State Boards of Education have set policies and standards for general air quality, it still doesn’t seem to be enough to establish significant positive changes in the way that mold is handled or dealt with in educational institutions. It seems to still be up to the individual school, county, parents, teachers, faculty, and staff to do anything about it.
- Mold doesn’t seem to make everyone sick. You see how I used the word “seem” there? I’ll get back to that, but there are numerous factors that play into this—genetic susceptibility, toxic load, underlying illnesses or infections, prior mold exposure—but, for whatever reason, not everyone exposed to a moldy building will get sick. I will argue that mycotoxins are not healthy for ANYONE to be exposed to, but it is still sometimes difficult to make the case that a building is making you or your child sick when no one seems to be affected.
- Mold illness symptoms are different for each person and don’t always present as an allergic-type reaction to a specific place. While the symptoms of mold allergy usually present as sinus infections, respiratory problems, watery eyes, sneezing, itchy skin and throat–all symptoms that are normally associated with mold and a reaction to mold, the symptoms of mold illness/toxicity are not as specific or universal. Lots of people with sudden allergy symptoms in one place may cause folks to look around and wonder what in their shared environment is making them all sick. On the other hand, when people are being exposed to or “poisoned” by toxic mold, the symptoms could look totally different from person to person. One may have brain fog, weight gain, and gastrointestinal issues, while another might have insomnia, frequent nausea, and exercise intolerance. In other words, because the mold illness sufferers’ symptoms seem so disparate and inconsistent, it is not likely that people would make connections and consider their illnesses as being caused by a shared environmental factor.
Obviously, my list does not begin cover everything, but at least it helps to establish why this topic continues to be so difficult to address. I also find that, if you put into words the big reasons why a problem is a problem in the first place, sometimes it helps you to map out the track to your solution a bit better.
How to Speak Up About Mold at School
So, now that I have laid a little bit of the groundwork, here is my response to the reader who sparked this topic:
I am sorry you are having to deal with yet another mold situation. It does sometimes feel like the hits keep coming once the whole “mold issue” becomes a part of your life, but I promise, it will get easier. You and your son are just so much more aware now, and much more sensitized to moldy environments. That can be both a blessing and a curse: You will “feel” it the minute you are in a bad environment; however, your body now recognizes a threat very acutely and will be vigilant at protecting you.
Now on what to do:
Before going in, know that in most states that I know of, there do not exist any specific mold laws, or even laws that regulate air quality in schools. You can check your State Board of Education website to be certain, but it is not likely. That being said, you can also refer to your state’s Department of Public Health website as it should have references and resources listed regarding regulations for mold issues in public or government buildings and how issues should be reported and handled. If you have reason to think your concerns will fall on deaf ears, you can go ahead and file a formal complaint about the mold in the PE building with the Department of Education in your state. Once a formal report is filed, your son’s school must report upon any complaints at their school board meeting. Knowing that a suspected mold problem is about to be public knowledge will definitely light more of a fire under them to get it addressed and fixed more quickly. On the other hand, if you know your principal and feel you will be listened to, I would go to her first and make her aware of your concerns to give her the opportunity to act before escalating things to the steps above her. This is just a “good faith” move and will help to build repoire, especially if you will be working with her to make this situation better.
Meeting with the Principal
Preparation is key for success. At your meeting, I would try to be as unemotional in your delivery as possible. State the facts, not of your personal struggles with mold, but of the specifics of your son’s symptoms and illness as it correlates to the moldy PE building. In other words, put into conrete terms what symptoms the actual school building with the visible mold is causing your son to have– nosebleeds, headaches, etc. I would also state that these symptoms are only occurring in the PE building and do not happen to him in any other building. I would also state that he no longer feels safe in that building, because he keeps getting sick. Be very specific and cite the visible water damage and mold present in the building. I would state how much you would like it fixed ASAP.
Helpful Mold-Specific Resources for Schools and Parents
You can print out and bring, or share the links ahead of time to the following helpful resources:
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Indoor Air Quality for Schools Homepage – From this hub, you can access information and training on everything schools and IAQ related. The page covers topics, like why IAQ tends to be poor in school buildings, why IAQ matters more for growing children and for learning, what can be done when IAQ is poor, preventative maintenance for school buildings, how to take action, and testing and remediation information. This is NOT just information on mold, but IAQ in general.
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s Guide to Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings – This link is like Mold 101 for your school’s administrators and maintenance staff. It talks about mold and why it grows indoors. It talks about mold testing and how to determine if an area can be cleaned by regular maintenance staff, or if it needs to be contained and cleaned by professional remediators. I do not agree with all of the information, but it does take a very big and daunting topic (what to do if there is indoor mold growth in a school) and breaks it down into understandable and actionable steps.
- Healthy Schools Indoor Air Quality Guide – I love this document. It takes the very BIG problem of poor IAQ in schools and guides a parent through how to handle it. I recommend that every parent should read this just to learn the information contained in it. It will give you a new respect for just how important maintaining the buildings that our children are learning in truly is.
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Dampness and Mold Assessment Tool – This contains an excellent printout for a guided assessment of a school building to look for dampness and mold indicative of a problem. I also love the fact that this document is contained on the CDC’s website–a trusted and globally recognized authority on illness and disease.
- The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities’ Mold in My School: What Do I Do? Document – This is exactly what it says that it is–a helpful guide for any parent or teacher facing going to their school administrators about a mold problem.
Order of Action Steps:
The steps to take with your son’s school are as follows:
1.) Have a meeting, like you are doing, with the principal.
- Voice your complaint and concerns.
- Ask if anyone else has complained or reported being sick because of the mold in the building.
- Suggest that you two take a walk to the building in question, so you can point out the mold and look at it together. Point out any musty smells or visible water damage as well.
- Ask what the plan is to investigate or fix the problem.
2.) If the principal will not take an investigative walk with you that day or schedule another day to do it, take the time, if possible, to do it yourself. Take videos, pictures, and notes of what you see and smell.
3.) After your meeting, send a follow-up letter or email and keep a copy for your files. Ask specifically for follow-up from the principal and school on what they plan to do. Ask also to be informed when action is taken on the matter and to be given access to testing results when it occurs.
4.) Keep a log of any phone calls, meetings, responses from the school, or communication on the topic. With the Freedom of Information Act, you can ask to see any work orders, inspection reports, or investigations into the issue by the school.
5.) If the school does nothing, talk with other parents, and get the PTA involved. Also file a formal complaint with the State Board of Education as stated in the beginning of my response.
6.) Offer to and try to stay involved in the matter on the school’s behalf as much as possible. If you can stay involved, you can help them find the right people to investigate. This must include testing and inspections that go beyond just testing the air—this is not enough.
Taking Notes and Charting Symptoms
In the meantime, I would start to gather whatever evidence may be needed to move your son to a safer school or to get more traction for your complaint, should nothing happen or get resolved. This includes the following action steps:
1.) Keep track of when your son goes to school healthy, and comes home sick or reports being sick at school. Do this with dates and a description of symptoms. Also document any funny smells he complains of and where those are.
2.) Speak with your child’s doc about his symptoms and about the suspected mold. You want this on his medical record, even if the doc does nothing about it or dismisses it.
Mitigate the Damage
However possible, you can take the following action steps to help mitigate whatever exposures are happening:
1.) Change your child into clean clothes when he gets home. Put his school clothes directly into the washing machine and wash with warm to hot water and EC3 Laundry Additive.
2.) Leave school shoes and bookbags outside in the carport or garage, if possible. You can spray his bookbag down with EC3 Spray. Bring books inside separate from his bag. You can also keep school things inside in a sealable plastic bin.
3.) Consider getting a portable, wearable personal air filtration device for your son. These have been tremendously helpful for me and my family.
4.) Have your son do a saline/CitriDrops nasal wash when he gets home. This will wash mold spores from his nasal passages and prevent entrance into his body.
5.) Use Sinus Defense to increase his innate immunity to mold and to help build his immune system in general. This will increase mold resiliency and help him to recover faster from exposures.
I hope that helps and does not completely overwhelm you. I obviously need to write about this on the blog! Good luck in your meeting. I will be thinking about you and saying a prayer that is goes well and that they jump all over it.