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K-wing

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Northport Middle School closes classrooms after elevated levels of toxic mercury were detected in a leaching pool outside near G-wing.

Elevated levels of mercury, an odorless toxic chemical, were detected Jan. 6 in the leaching pool area outside of the Northport Middle School. 

Three classrooms in the G-wing were closed in response “out of an abundance of caution.” The results of air quality tests in the classroom are still pending. Otherwise, it was business as usual at the school the days following the incident.

Parents and some retired teachers have raised numerous ongoing health concerns that they say stem from the chemicals and mold that has been found in various locations on school grounds. The building, they say, should be permanently closed. 

The incident is the latest issue parents argue that deems the site unsafe for children and teachers. The decision to close a school for air quality concerns falls under the jurisdiction of the school board, according to county and state health agencies. 

The district has stated on multiple occasions that it has found no evidence of unsafe air or conditions that would justify closure.

As stated in an email from Superintendent Robert Banzer sent to parents, PW Grosser Consulting, the environmental firm that discovered the elevated mercury levels, recommended that classrooms G-51 and G-52 remain unoccupied until further notice. G-51 has not been occupied since Dec. 10 stemming from a foul “rotten-egg” odor that was blamed on the school’s new heating and ventilation system.  

PWGC also recommended that students not occupy classroom G-53.  PWGC also recommended further air and vapor testing inside classrooms G-51, G-52 and G-53. 

Some parents, though, say students should be moved immediately. Former board member Tammie Topel said in a public letter that’s been widely circulated that sixth-graders should be scheduled to attend school at their home elementary school and seventh and eighth-graders should be moved to the district’s other middle school.  A 35 percent school population drop, she said, suggests that it is a viable option to explore. (See Topel’s open letter on page 18.)

The ongoing string of incidences raises serious questions about outside oversight of health standards in school districts. Several families in 2018 filed suit alleging that the district, county, town, state and the county and state health departments alleging personal injury induced by toxic exposures as a result of negligence. 

That year, the school remodeled its K-wing after toxic chemicals and volatile organic compounds were found in the building. 

Lawyers representing some of the families did not respond to messages left with their office.  

Last month, in response to a Nov. 20 TBR News Media article that exposed that the Northport-East Northport School District was in violation of some laws governing petroleum bulk storage, district officials announced that they would move its bus depot and refueling station from its location at the middle school to Cavay’s Building & Lumber Supply on Brightside Avenue. 

Meanwhile, a petition posted on Change. org called Close Northport Middle School has garnered over 3,050 signatures.

Banzer did not respond to request for comment prior to going to print about whether or not the board is discussing closing the school or relocating students. 

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.