HAMPSTEAD — Ashley Sitorius’ 12-year-old son has been sent home from Topsail Middle School four times since the beginning of the school year. Excessive coughing, sneezing, nasal congestion, stomach aches have been ongoing. Each time he was tested for Covid-19 only to receive negative results.
Sitorius said her son has been diagnosed with severe mold and dust-mite allergies and sees an allergist regularly. His mom noticed symptoms seemed exacerbated at school and lessened in severity each time he returned home.
“I’m really upset and picking my son up now,” she told Port City Daily Jan. 20. “They’re being nonchalant about mold in the school and not considering the health damages to children allergic to mold. Or those who have asthma.”
That day her son began learning at home virtually, while the school awaited results for an air quality inspection due to suspected mold issues in the middle school.
The results, released Jan. 25, show high concentrations of unseen mold spores in the air, visible mold growth and elevated levels of carbon dioxide in certain locations. There was also noticeable water damage, mainly on the ceilings.
It’s not the first time parents have raised concerns about mold at Topsail schools. In the 2002-2003 school year, parents filed four separate toxic mold lawsuits against Pender County Schools alleging their children became ill due to mold exposure while attending North Topsail Elementary School, South Topsail Elementary, Topsail Middle School and Topsail High School.
At the time, there were ongoing complaints from parents and teachers about visible mold and allergy symptoms. The parents dropped the lawsuit in 2005, when the schools agreed to spend more than $1 million in cleaning and air quality improvements, according to media reports at the time.
Port City Daily inquired about the number of times Pender County Schools has tested for mold over the last decade but hasn’t received a response as of press. Pender County Schools chief officer of operations Darren LaFon said tests are done “periodically on an as-needed basis.”
It conducted at least one $36,000, district-wide test in 2019 following repairs from Hurricane Florence. In 2018, the county’s schools closed for over a month due to water damage, resulting in more mold issues, LaFon said.
Sitorius’ son went home sick, at the request of the school nurse, for the fourth time Dec. 16, 2021. Sitorius said thereafter she emailed Topsail Middle School principal Jacob Lawrence asking when the last time an air-quality check was conducted.
He responded within hours that an assessment was completed at the beginning of the school year and said he would speak with LaFon about arranging another for “early second semester.” The principal also indicated he had not heard any concerns from students, staff or parents since contractors corrected roof leaks in late summer.
Sitorius expressed frustration to the principal in her email — shared with Port City Daily — explaining her son was missing critical instruction time as a result of being sent home.
She also reached out to other parents to see if their children were experiencing similar symptoms. A handful echoed her fears.
One concerned mother — who asked to remain anonymous — emailed Port City Daily to say she, too, reached out to the school when her son came home complaining of itchy, burning, watery eyes and nose. She said it was specifically noticeable while he spent time in the cafeteria, gym and locker rooms. The mother was concerned, she said, because when her daughter attended Topsail Middle School in 2017, there also was a mold issue. She asked principal Lawrence if an air quality test could be expedited.
He responded that one was being scheduled and told her the building had received an air quality approval in September.
The principal passed on correspondence to LaFon, responsible for facility maintenance and safety. Lafon said the building was tested Aug. 10 because visible mold was noticed on exposed surfaces following summer break. A hygienist from ECS Southeast was hired for $2,000 and cleared the building Sept. 8.
Results from the August assessment indicated water-stained ceiling tiles in numerous classrooms, fungal growth on the sides of desks and potentially on the ceiling, hallway walls and classroom doors, as well as evidence of an active water leak in room 719. At the time, the hygienist recommended wiping down mold-covered areas with an EPA-approved microbial disinfectant, and ventilating contaminated rooms with negative air machines. Also, she suggested removing water damage from room 719.
A follow-up assessment showed issues had been remediated.
“In normal times, we would not test the building again this soon,” LaFon wrote to Sitorius in a Dec. 21 email, “but these being far from normal times, we are going to set up a date for the hygienist to come in January to do follow-up testing.”
Over the 2021 winter break, Pender County Schools set up data loggers in the middle school to collect temperature, humidity and dew point levels. The goal was to narrow down areas the hygienist should focus on. Results showed temperature and humidity levels in the building were considered within normal ranges.
Pender County Schools hired ECS Southeast again for $1,500 to perform the test on Jan. 11.
LaFon told Sitorius the hygienist reported in a preliminary evaluation “elevated levels” in the hallway and gym, indicating mold growth — “but not to the point of immediate concern,” he wrote. “[O]nce we receive the report and have her recommendations, we will move quickly to remediate the issues as identified.”
Sitorius said she continued to press daily, asking if the official report had arrived.
On Jan. 18, LaFon told her: “I am still waiting … but the preliminary word is okay. I’ll follow up with the hygienist on their recommendations.”
“I’ve asked what ‘okay’ means and if the report is accessible? How is ‘okay’ defined?” Sitorius told Port City Daily the same day. “Very confusing and concerning.”
LaFon also relayed that initial findings for room 704, one of the classrooms Sitorius’ son is in, showed elevated carbon dioxide levels. “Our HVAC department will investigate and correct it once we receive the hygienist’s report,” he continued.
“My apologies for being redundant but I’m still trying to understand,” Sitorius wrote to LaFon. “You stated, ‘The hygienist reported elevated levels in some of the non-classroom areas…’ Sir, what exactly was elevated? Mold? Mildew? Dust mites? Was it the AQI? If it was the AQI, what was the index number? As I’ve stated before, my son has had ill effects in the 7th grade building. It would behoove PCS to let the public know if there’s an air quality issue that will affect our children. Especially children that suffer with asthma and allergies.”
Lafon explained that, again, official results would address specifically what was elevated. “I have no further information,” he said.
Fourteen days after testing, results confirmed air quality issues in the seventh-grade building’s cafeteria, four classrooms — 704, 723, 735 and 727 — and the hallway near the staff restroom, the gymnasium and the locker room.
“The hygienist professional reported no emergency action needed and offered recommendations,” Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill said to Port City Daily. “Pender County Schools is working to get contractors identified to complete all of the recommendations.”
Based on the assessment, hygienist Amy DeSaix noted humidity readings were low throughout testing locations and within acceptable ranges; however, there was visible mold growth in the upper portions of the wall near the staff restroom; water-impacted ceilings in the cafeteria and storage room near rooms 723, 725 and 727; and water damage in the gymnasium, with mold growth in the locker-room bathroom.
“It should be noted that elevated mold spores are common in locker rooms, bathrooms and areas of humidity and dampness,” DeSaix wrote in her assessment.
LaFon wrote in a Jan. 27 email to Port City Daily the “building is safe for occupancy,” according to the hygienist.
DeSaix tested exterior levels of mold, carbon dioxide and humidity, compared to interior levels. She collected samples from the gymnasium, cafeteria and multiple classrooms, including rooms 704 and 719 and the hallway outside 719. The same areas were tested in August and resulted in high levels of mold.
However, DeSaix detected slightly high carbon dioxide concentrations throughout the building, with significant elevation in room 704.
According to acceptable standards by the American National Standards Institute and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, followed by ECS, indoor carbon dioxide measurements should not differ from outdoor measurements by more than 700 parts per million (ppm). Room 704, where the issue “appears to be localized,” had a reading of 2,671 ppm on Jan 11, which is more than double 700 ppm based on the outdoor reading measured between 430 and 433.
“Slight elevations in CO2 are usually due to inadequate fresh air ventilation,” the report states. “[And] may cause problems such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; headaches and respiratory difficulties.”
Readings were collected at the end of the day, after classrooms had been occupied with closed doors, which could have impacted ventilation.
Superintendent Hill told Port City Daily, “Additionally, PCS is testing the room [Thursday] that had higher CO2 readings and will remove students based on verbal “rule of thumb” ratings.”
Topsail Middle School parent Courtney Winter told Port City Daily her child’s class was relocated out of room 704 on Jan. 27.
The school has been taking daily readings, and on that day, carbon dioxide was measured at 1,170 ppm inside that room, according to LaFon.
Superintendent Hill told Port City Daily “out of an abundance of caution, PCS is physically inspecting and repairing any blockages, adding room sensors and has placed an air scrubber on site.”
Most of the sampled areas also indicated elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium spore counts — a type of toxic mold typically found in soil, food, carpet, HVAC and air, and known to cause allergies.
Sitorius’ son’s pediatrician sent a note to the school requesting he be allowed to attend virtually until the mold issues are corrected. She also referred him to an additional allergist, as well as an infectious disease specialist.
“His symptoms are worse and prevent his full participation in daily activities,” the doctor wrote. “As an advocate for children, in fact all individuals, I am worried about the safety of all the students, teachers and staff in this building and others within the school system.”
Yet, DeSaix wrote in her report current concentrations of mold “would not likely be considered an immediate health concern (except in extreme immunocompromised individuals) to the general school population and should not impact recreational class activities.”
The hygienist made similar recommendations as she did in August, suggesting the school: clean the surface of visible mold on the walls with an EPA-approved antimicrobial; remove and replace water-stained ceiling tiles and determine the source of mold in the gymnasium. The most effective long-term solution, she wrote, is to identify areas of moisture and water infiltration to prevent further growth.
LaFon said Topsail Middle plans to follow the recommendations laid out by the hygienist and emailed Sitorius Jan. 28, explaining a definitive completion date for the work was not yet known. First, he said, contractors need to have a full day on site to analyze the situation.
“I have asked that they be extremely thorough, and while the necessary corrections are not complicated, it is possible they will discover something outside the original scope of work,” LaFon wrote. “My expressed expectation is that the contractor expedite and complete this project as quickly as possible.”
Pender County Schools made the air quality report public on its website on Monday. It sent an automated voice recording and email to Topsail Middle School parents Monday morning as well. The email read:
“Topsail Middle School families, this is Principal Lawrence with an important message.
I wanted to make you aware that Monday through Thursday of this week, we will be replacing water damaged ceiling tiles and cleaning specified surface areas and vents. The work being performed is based on the most recent hygienist report recommendations.
All of the work will take place after school hours and air-scrubbers will be added as an additional precaution.
A full copy of the hygienist report can be found on the TMS homepage.”
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