Heating & cooling system issues can kill a class

Poor air circulation in Maryland’s oldest operating high school means it needs repairs and extensive upgrades, and three schools in the northwest suburbs of Chicago will be closed tomorrow, for the second day in a row, because high levels of the bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease were found in their cooling systems.

Tony Sanders, Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO, said none of about 3,000 students at Eastview Middle School in Bartlett, Ill., and Larkin High School and the Gifford Street alternative school, both in Elgin, Ill., told school officials about any illnesses as a result of the bacteria, the Arlington Heights Daily Herald reports.

Levels of Legionella bacteria were reported to be as high as about 1,000 colony-forming units per milliliter, which, by Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, calls for emergency action to be taken, Mr Sanders said. The fix is to sanitize the cooling systems with chlorine, which the district did, and the plan is to sanitize the cooling systems in all the district’s buildings again tomorrow, just to be sure.

And when reporters from the Times-News in Cumberland, Md., in Allegany County, took a tour of the 90-year-old facilities at Allegany High School, including the four large coal-fired boilers used for heating, they discovered “water damage, unsealed windows, buckled flooring, crumbling walls, dark hallways, and deteriorated carpeting in a school with little to no access for special needs individuals.”

“Allegany [High School], Fort Hill [High School], and Washington and Braddock middle schools are the only coal-fired schools left in the state of Maryland,” the paper quoted Jay Marley, the school’s supervisor of maintenance and construction, as saying. Mike Calhoun, Allegany principal, added that “You have the sulfur smell when you start burning coal. Sometimes it is so bad they can’t have classes.”

Information about Legionnaires’ disease is available from the Illinois Department of Public Health, here, which reported an outbreak in residents at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy last month. “Legionnaires’ disease can be a dangerous illness, especially in older adults who have weaker immune systems,” IDPH Director Nirav D Shah, MD, JD, was quoted as saying in a release.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a page for clinicians in treating patients with Legionnaires’ disease, here. People with compromised immune systems usually develop pneumonia, cough, and fever when they contract Legionnaires’ disease. An infectious disease specialist quoted in the Daily Herald, though, said kids at the schools were unlikely to get sick since they had been around the bacteria for some time already.

“I don’t want to say that the school district shouldn’t have evacuated the buildings, but it was probably done more out of an abundance of caution,” Dr Robert Tiballi of Advocate Sherman Hospital told the paper.

The situation at Allegany is much worse, with floors so thin they can no longer be sanded smooth, stale air permeating the environment immediately as students and staff walk into the school, and disintegrating walls in the auditorium.

“Dr David Lever, the executive director of the IAC [Interagency Committee on School Construction], said this school is the worst facility operating in Maryland,” the Times-News quoted David Cox, the district superintendent as saying about Allegany High School.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.