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air quality

Northport Middle School's newly refurbished K-74 classroom. Photo from Northport-East Northport school district

Students can safely take a deep breath while attending classes in the newly reopened K-Wing of Northport Middle School.

Northport-East Northport school district has reopened the K-Wing of Northport Middle School for student and staff use after environmental testing for volatile organic compounds conducted by consultants J.C. Broderick & Associates Aug. 27 determined it was safe for use. The study and its conclusions were reviewed by officials in New York State’s Department of Health.

“[T]he levels of volatile organic compounds detected at the time of the sampling are well below any levels that have been associated with adverse health effects.”

— Michael Hughes

“Based on the air concentrations and information presented in the report, the levels of volatile organic compounds detected at the time of the sampling are well below any levels that have been associated with adverse health effects,” wrote Michael Hughes, a section chief in the state’s Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment, in a Sept. 4 email. “The NYSDOH therefore concurs with the conclusion in the report that staff and students occupy the K-Wing in the school.”

On Aug. 27, J.C. Broderick & Associates staff conducted volatile organic compound, or VOC, sampling in K-Wing classrooms to determine if extensive summer renovations had resolved indoor air quality concerns. The district had closed off the area for the 2017-18 school year after an earth science teacher reported smelling gasoline fumes and an investigation found the source to be a petroleum-based warehouse beneath the K-wing.

The testing was performed using 26 cannisters, according to J.C. Broderick & Associates — two in each of the classrooms, the hallway and underground warehouse to test for any hazardous airborne chemicals. The samples were then sent to York Analytical Laboratories to be analyzed and compared against five sets of guidelines.

“In the report, there were a couple of VOCs that were detected,” Superintendent Robert Banzer said at the Sept. 6 board of education meeting.

The first chemical, methyl methacrylate, was measured at 1.4 to 5.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air in four classrooms, both hallway samples and the warehouse. These levels exceed New York State Department of Health’s 95th percentile concentration of 1.1 micrograms per cubic meter based on the average found in roughly 100 Albany residential homes . The environmental experts used safety data sheets, which list any potentially chemicals found in various products used, to determine it was coming off floor wax applied to the new flooring surfaces in the K-wing.

“The sampling performed did not identify any hazardous concentrations of VOC parameters in any of the sampled locations when compared with the above referenced health-based values.”

— J.C. Broderick & Associates report

The second chemical, Styrene, was measured at 20 to 27 micrograms per cubic meter of air in the warehouse only, above the 2.3 micrograms per cubic meter of air set as the 95th percentile by the state Department of Health. The data sheets showed it was notably found in the shrink-wrap used to wrap pallet products stored in area.

Once these two chemicals were found to be above the 95th percentage, J.C. Broderick & Associates report compared its findings to four health-based guidelines, the most stringent being the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Reference Dose Concentration. The EPA’s guidelines provide an estimate of the maximum level of a VOC that can be continuously inhaled for a lifetime before adverse effects are seen and contains built in safety factors to protect sensitive groups, such as young children or the elderly.

“The sampling performed did not identify any hazardous concentrations of VOC parameters in any of the sampled locations when compared with the above referenced health-based values,” reads J.C. Broderick & Associates’ Aug. 31 report.

The methyl methacrylate found at 1.4 to 5.1 micrograms is well below the 700 micrograms per cubic meter guideline set by the EPA, as was styrene’s 27 micrograms under the 1,000-microgram limit.

Any concerned parent or staff member can find the full results of the air sampling reports and related correspondence on the district’s website at northport.k12.ny.us/district/bg_northport_ms_information.

District’s environmental consultants took 26 samples earlier this week; results to be reviewed by New York State Department of Health

Northport-East Northport school officials and parents are awaiting the results of the latest
Middle School K-wing air quality samples prior to the school’s reopening next week.

The district’s environmental consultant firm J.C. Broderick & Associates Inc. took 26 air samples throughout the K-Wing of Northport Middle School earlier this week to see if issues with gasoline fumes have been fully resolved after extensive summer renovations.

“The question I have been asked is are we going to test before we reopen the K-Wing,” Superintendent Robert Banzer said. “The answer is yes.”

The question I have been asked is are we going to test before we reopen the K-Wing. The answer is yes.”

— Robert Banzer

Edward McGuire, of J.C. Broderick & Associates, said the testing consisted of placing two air sampling cannisters in every single classroom and office space, two in the hallway, and two in the warehouse space beneath the wing, which was the previous site of chemical storage, to see what level of volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs or fumes, are present. In addition, two cannisters were placed outside the building to represent the ambient air that is brought into the school building via the ventilation systems.

“It is the créme de la créme of VOC sampling,” the consultants said. “There is no better methodology.”

The cannisters were placed at varying heights 3 to 5 feet off the ground in each location, according to McGuire, meant to replicate the typical breathing zone of a seated or standing person within the space. Each room was independently sealed off before air samples were collected for a continuous eight-hour period while the newly installed rooftop ventilation systems ran, McGuire said, meant to replicate “typical occupancy conditions.”

Brandon Weisberg, project superintendent for district contractors Park East Construction, said the K-Wing classrooms were ripped down to the studs this summer. New plumbing was installed, fire stoppers sealed, and a special heavy-duty vapor barrier applied on the concrete subsurface between the underground warehouse storage and K-Wing to prevent any fumes from penetrating into the air, according to Weisberg. The district also had new rooftop heating, air conditioning and ventilation units installed while also sealing the older ground-level passages with concrete.

The environmental consultants said their staff has worked with the district’s contractors to obtain safety data sheets for each material used in renovating the K-Wing this summer, providing a list of any potentially hazardous chemicals contained in each product. McGuire said this data will be used to help analyze the air samples and potentially used to identify the source of any abnormally high fumes or airborne chemicals found during the sampling.

“The sensitivity of the analysis will always find VOCs in the air,” McGuire said. “Our expectations are also a little higher because we know everything is brand new.”

The sensitivity of the analysis will always find VOCs in the air. Our expectations are also a little higher because we know everything is brand new.”

— Edward McGuire

The consultants were asked to explain during a presentation at an Aug. 23 board of education meeting that any smell in the K-Wing could be similar to the odors detected by new car owners when they sit inside the vehicle.

J.C. Broderick said they will be doing a two-part comparison of the air samples taken. The first part will be a report on the ambient levels of each VOC detected, while the second phase will examine the levels found against healthy safety guidelines established by New York State Department of Health. McGuire said the standards being used will be compared against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s dose concentration guidelines, which consider different levels for sensitive populations, such as young children.

The results of the air quality testing were expected to be received within approximately 72 hours of the end of sample collection, or 48 hours after the cannisters were delivered to the laboratory. The final report will be sent to New York State Department of Health for its review prior to the classrooms being reopened to student and staff use.

The results were not yet available as of noon Aug. 29, according to the superintendent.

Banzer assured residents the district has repurposed the old warehouse space as a dry storage for “paper goods” and other such things.

“There are no chemicals stored down there, all that was eliminated last year,” he said.

Following air quality concerns, Northport school officials said the district plans to reopen the K-wing of Northport Middle School to students for the 2018-19 school year.

Over the summer recess, Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer confirmed the district has undertaken extensive renovations of the K-wing classrooms, including its ventilation systems. The building’s indoor air quality has raised concerns from district residents since the smell of gas fumes was reported in April 2017.

“Prior to the reopening of the school, the district plans to follow [New York State Department of Health’s] recommendation to retest the K-wing to ensure that there are no indoor air quality issues,” Banzer said.

The K-wing’s indoor air quality was last tested in March by the district’s environmental consulting firm, Hauppauge-based J.C. Broderick & Associates, according to the superintendent. The study’s results, which were shared with district residents in a letter dated March 19, stated the consultants had no concerns about mold growth, volatile organic compounds or carbon monoxide in any of the priority areas it reviewed. The consultants did raise medium, or moderate, concerns that some of the district’s ventilation systems were imbalanced in areas and in need of either repair or replacement.

Banzer said the district will continue to utilize the Tools for School program in the K-wing and throughout the district, which shows schools how to carry out a practical plan to resolve indoor air problems such as volatile organic compounds and mold “at little to no cost using straightforward
activities and in-house staff,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.

The district’s issues with indoor air quality in the K-wing first came to light when an earth science teacher reported smelling fumes in the classroom, and an investigation found the source to be a petroleum-based warehouse beneath the K-wing.

An initial July 2017 study by J.C. Broderick & Associates showed no hazardous concentration of chemicals in any of the air samples. However, four chemicals commonly linked to perfumes, natural rubber products, air conditioners and refrigerators, thermoplastics and latex paints were found in high concentrations — above the 95th percentile of allowable levels determined by the state — in the K-wing corridor, rooms 74 and 75. The consultant’s study was reported to the New York State Department of Health.

Facing widespread community concerns, a forum was held in August 2017, where the superintendent said the district officials had decided to close the Northport Middle School wing for the 2017-18 school year. The closure did not affect previously scheduled classes other than changing their locations, as students were readily accommodated by reallocating use of existing classrooms.

Northport-East Northport school parent Mary Gilmore urged school officials to conduct a longitudinal study of air quality in the schools. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Northport-East Northport board of education called on a specialist last week in an attempt to clear the air with concerned parents over potential health risks from gas fumes detected at Northport Middle School last spring.

At the Sept. 28 meeting, Dr. Lauren Zajac of Mount Sinai Hospital, a pediatrician specially trained in environmental health, fielded questions by the board and residents and encouraged the district to implement an indoor air quality program in all its schools.

“As a pediatrician and a mom myself, I would want to make sure our schools have good air because nobody is doing that right now — let’s become a leader in the state when it comes to indoor air quality,” Zajac said over a Skype call in the cafeteria at William J. Brosnan School.

“I hope we don’t hear 10, 20 or 30 years down the road students are developing illnesses. No level of unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is at all acceptable … ignorance to this is no excuse.”

— Denise Schwartz

She assured the agitated residents in the room that moving forward is the best plan of action.

“We can’t change what happened in the past and I’m sorry it happened, and I know it’s stressful,” Zajac said. “I recommend channeling this passion and energy into making sure a really good program is put in place.”

The board assured Zajac and residents it has begun the process of implementing a Tools for Schools program, which shows school districts how to carry out a practical plan to resolve indoor air problems such as volatile organic compounds and mold “at little to no cost using straightforward activities and in-house staff,” according to the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency website.

“Today we had a kickoff meeting for that program,” Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer said. “Tools for Schools is comprehensive and deals with anything having to do with air quality.”

Zajac’s appearance before the board followed consistent urging from the community for a longitudinal study of the school district to get to the bottom of four chemicals commonly found in perfumes and latex paints found in high concentrations in classrooms 74 and 75 in the K-wing corridor April 24. After an earth science teacher smelled fumes in the classroom, an investigation found the source to be a petroleum-based warehouse beneath the K-wing.

That discovery six months ago led to the closure of those rooms for the remainder of the school year. It remains off limits today.

The materials were removed and a series of air quality tests have since been conducted, one by a company called EnviroScience Inc. three days after the odor was first found. A second air quality test was performed by J.C. Broderick & Associates Inc. July 22.

Although the tests came up with “nothing that sounded the alarms from a health perspective,” according to Zajac whose team analyzed the data reports, parents have long feared for their children’s health in connection to the fumes.

Zajac pushed for the school and community to forego the longitudinal study as it may not provide the answers everyone is looking for. There are many unknown factors surrounding the possible exposures, and chemical levels in general are apt to change with each day, according to the specialist, resulting in an unreliable study.

“I think I’m going to explode if I hear ‘move forward’ one more time. You have to look back, you have to protect the children and staff that were there.”

— East Northport resident

“It would be very hard to draw conclusions as to whether a student’s visit to the nurse has anything to do with exposure concerns or unrelated illnesses,” she said, steering the conversation back to the future. “It could be done, but it would have so many limitations and I wouldn’t want it to take away effort from the most important thing — reducing the exposures from here on out.”

But some residents in the room weren’t as willing to let go of past problems within the school.

East Northport parent Denise Schwartz, whose three children have gone through the middle school, said she recently uncovered old newspaper articles documenting the school’s history of being a “sick building.” Mold, fungus and gas leading to headaches and fevers is not a recent problem here, Schwartz told Zajac.

“Every time it has come up, there has been some clean up that appeased people and then we move forward,” Schwartz said, implying negligence and incompetence by those in the school district. “I hope we don’t hear 10, 20 or 30 years down the road students are developing illnesses. No level of unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is at all acceptable … ignorance to this is no excuse.”

Mary Gilmore, a mother of two students whose classrooms were in the K-wing, urged for a longitudinal study to be done despite the unknown variables.

“Isn’t that the only way to know if there will be long-term health effects on the kids and staff that were in that building?” Gilmore said.

“My concern is that a study would be intensive and may not lead to any answers,” Zajac responded. “I’d be afraid so much would be put into this study and it wouldn’t be fruitful.”

Another East Northport resident, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with the others that more focus should be on the past.

“I think I’m going to explode if I hear ‘move forward’ one more time,” she said, pleading for a study. “You have to look back, you have to protect the children and staff that were there.”

This version correctly identifies that Denise Schwartz’s children have already graduated from the middle school.

File photo

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Widespread concerns over indoor air quality will keep the K-wing of Northport Middle School closed for the upcoming 2017-18 school year, Northport school officials announced.

On Aug. 9, Northport school district held a community forum to address parents concerned over what health risks may be posed to students in the classrooms where an earth science teacher reported smelling gasoline fumes in April. The fumes were said to be coming from a petroleum-based warehouse located beneath the K-wing. The materials have since been removed.

The most recent air-quality tests, performed July 22 by Hauppauge-based J.C. Broderick & Associates Inc., an environmental and construction testing firm, showed no hazardous concentration of chemicals in any of the samples. But four chemicals commonly linked to perfumes, natural rubber products, air conditioners and refrigerators, thermoplastics and latex paints were found in high concentrations — above the 95th percentile — in the K-wing corridor, rooms 74 and 75. These results were reported to the New York State Department of Health, according to J.C. Broderick & Associates’ report.

Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer said the wing’s closure will not affect scheduled classes other than moving their locations, as students can be readily accommodated by reallocating use of existing classrooms.

The district has a plan of action in place to continue air-quality sampling throughout the building.

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