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May 23rd, 2001 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

The Poisoning of Whitaker

For more than a decade, district officials have kept mum about health hazards inside the state's worst middle school.

     
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There's a killer on the loose inside Whitaker Middle School.According to inspection reports and other documents obtained by WW through a public records request, the Northeast Portland school contains levels of radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas, that are two to three times the federal Environmental Protection Agency's "action level."

Radon, according to the EPA, is the country's second leading cause of lung cancer deaths.

"There's a definite health hazard there," says Scott Burns, a geology professor at Portland State University and the state's foremost authority on radon, when shown a copy of the Whitaker documents. "A definite health hazard."

Radon is not the school's only health problem. Inspections at Whitaker have shown high levels of carbon dioxide, which is associated with headaches, respiratory difficulties and diminished performance.

For years, the school has suffered from inexplicably low test scores, a high rate of absenteeism and myriad health complaints. Until now, no one has linked poor ventilation to these problems. But after being informed of Whitaker's environmental history, a leading expert on air quality says they may indeed be related. "Poor ventilation could very well be a factor in poor attentiveness, poor memory, and poor academic performance," says Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University.

Whitaker's health hazards are alarming. But it is even more disturbing that the conditions have existed for more than 10 years. During this time district employees have neither fixed the problems nor disclosed them to parents of Whitaker students or the school's faculty.

Only a few people in the district's Environmental Health and Safety Office even knew the truth about Whitaker--and they apparently failed to share their knowledge with the superintendent or the school board.

Whitaker teachers, many of whom have long been suspicious about their school's environment, expressed disbelief when they learned from WW of the extensive documentation of health hazards. "Nobody ever told us," says Grace McKenzie, who has taught in the building for 18 years.

Even the building's principal from 1993 to 2000, James Brannon, says he was in the dark about radon in his school. "Most definitely nobody brought the issue to my attention," he says.

Carrie Adams, an Education Crisis Team member, argues that the district's decade-long failure to protect Whitaker students and staff borders on criminal behavior. "This really stops me cold," Adams says. "This is horrible."

Whitaker, a sprawling conglomeration of white concrete slabs located on Alameda Ridge at Northeast 39th Avenue and Killingsworth Street, looks more like a warehouse than a school. Inside are water-stained ceilings, endless hallways paneled in brown plastic and copious mouse droppings. An atrium bursts with towering ficus trees, a Norfolk Island pine and a large poinsettia, but its glass roof has leaked for 20 years, the custodian says, and Whitaker's 675 students are forbidden to enter.

The school's most notable physical features, however, are its windows, which do not open. When Whitaker (then Adams High School) was constructed in 1966, energy conservation was apparently more important than fresh air. Only one other school in Portland, Clarendon Elementary, built in 1970, shares this unfortunate design.

Ventilation--or lack thereof--seems to be central to Whitaker's environmental problems. Radon, which occurs naturally, and carbon dioxide, which is the result of human exhalations, both accumulate inside the school for the same reason: poor ventilation.

Dr. William Field, a researcher at the University of Iowa who completed an extensive study on the risks of radon last year, says the two substances are frequently found together. "Carbon dioxide and radon often go hand in hand," he explains. "High levels of carbon dioxide means you have lower air exchange rates, which means higher radon concentrations."

Usually, Field adds, both radon and carbon dioxide are easy to get rid of--you just open the windows. But at Whitaker, that's not possible.

The EPA and the National Cancer Institute estimate that each year radon causes 15,000--and perhaps as many as 30,000--lung cancer deaths in this country. "There is no debate about radon being a lung carcinogen in humans," says the EPA's most recent radon advisory.

Like cigarette smoke, the radioactive gas has long-term effects that may not show up for decades. "You're not aware of the risk until it's too late," Field says.

Radon is rare in Oregon, but the gas has been seeping out of the ground beneath Whitaker for 15,000 years, since shortly after an ice dam burst in what is now Montana. A wall of water, known as the Missoula flood, gushed through the Cascades, scouring out the Columbia Gorge and depositing uranium-rich sand and rocks in Alameda Ridge. As that uranium decays, it produces radon, which enters Whitaker through cracks and holes in the building's foundation.

Not until 1984, however, did federal health officials identify the risks of radon in buildings.

In 1991, as part of the EPA's heightened concern about radon, Portland Public Schools tested all of its buildings for the gas. Initial results found little radon in any of the district's nearly 100 schools--except at Whitaker, where nearly every room in the school contained levels higher than the EPA's threshold for corrective action. "The results of the Phase II testing for radon gas, conducted during the last school year, indicates that of the 35 tests done [at Whitaker], 29 were above the EPA safety standard of 4.0 picocuries/liter," wrote Andy Fridley of the district's environmental services department in 1991. The average level at Whitaker was 9.4, with a high reading of 21.

(Research completed last year by Field in Iowa--where the country's greatest concentration of radon is found--determined that exposure to an amount of radon equal to the "action level" for 15 years increased the chances of getting lung cancer by 50 percent.)

Rather than adherence to the EPA guidelines, however, the district's files of Whitaker's radon history instead detail a story of bureaucratic inertia and half-hearted fixes that didn't work.

In 1992, records show, district officials followed up with more tests at Whitaker. The results confirmed the high levels of radon, so district officials ordered caulking and patching of the foundation, which was meant to block the seepage of radon into the building.

That action apparently failed; further tests done in 1995-96 showed that radon levels had actually increased significantly.

Again in 1997, records show that the district contracted for caulking and patching and tried to improve ventilation to move the radon out of the building.

But amazingly, nobody ordered retesting after those efforts. "We paid good money to mitigate the radon," explains Patrick Wolfe, the district's director of environmental health and safety, who oversaw the attempted fix in 1997. "Our assumption was that we'd mitigated it."

That assumption was wrong. In 1998 and again last year, a teacher named Sue Walenza, who knew there was radon in the neighborhood but had no idea it was present in the school, brought a radon testing kit to her classroom. She hoped testing might provide some explanation for her poor health.

The levels of radon she found averaged 12.1 picocuries per liter in 1998 (including one reading of 24, the highest yet recorded at Whitaker) and 6.8 in 2000. And although Walenza's tests were unofficial, Wolfe does not challenge their accuracy. The radon, it seems, never went away.

Wolfe says the district will soon embark on yet another round of radon testing. He rejects, however, the notion that his department hasn't adequately informed the Whitaker community of the risks the radioactive gas poses.

"There's an EPA 'action level'," he says, "but it's not a regulation."

Field, the Iowa researcher, estimates that he has observed or been involved with getting radon out of about 50 midwestern schools. He is surprised that Whitaker's problem still exists after a decade. "I haven't seen a building yet where the radon couldn't be mitigated," he says.

It's unclear whether anyone has developed cancer from exposure to radon at Whitaker. Many staffers, however, complain of shorter-term afflictions, which may be related to poor air quality.

Even before district officials discovered high levels of radon at Whitaker, they knew that the school contained high levels of carbon dioxide.

A natural byproduct of processes including combustion and human respiration, carbon dioxide is colorless and odorless. In crowded classrooms, particularly those lacking proper ventilation, it accumulates as the day progresses.

Scientists regard the gas as a key indicator of air flow. "Carbon dioxide will not normally accumulate in a building if you have adequate ventilation," says Alan Hedge, the Cornell air-quality expert. "If there are persistent high levels of carbon dioxide, that indicates the system isn't working effectively."

If carbon dioxide is accumulating, Hedge explains, then pollutants such as cleaning solvents, mold, carpet fumes and even emissions from nearby factories may be lingering in the air, causing health problems. "Carbon dioxide doesn't cause health problems, but it suggests there could be other contaminants the building," he says.

As far back as 1990, tests taken in Whitaker classrooms revealed carbon dioxide levels in excess of 1,000 parts per million, the comfort guideline established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

After testing several classrooms, district environmental inspector Herbert Wagner wrote in a January 1990 memo, "Complaints about stuffiness will probably continue in rooms A-225, 229, 205 and 206 if the ventilation remains in its present state."

Since then, there have indeed been several additional complaints. This January, for example, Wagner again responded to air-quality concerns at Whitaker. He found levels of 1,500-1,600 ppm of carbon dioxide; retests a week later found all three classrooms and the hallway sampled right at or above 1,000 ppm.

Adjustments in ventilation lowered those levels, but the teacher in whose room the high readings were found, Janice Ingersoll, has left school and, under her doctor's advice, will not return to her classroom even though the district has denied her worker's compensation claim. "I can't afford not working," Ingersoll says, "but that building has ruined my health."

There's no question that radon causes lung cancer; similarly, there's no question that the symptoms associated with poor ventilation include drowsiness, an inability to concentrate and a lack of energy--exactly what teachers don't want to see in their students or themselves. In other words, teachers and students in sick buildings don't do very well.

There's plenty of evidence of underperformance at Whitaker.

For example, in each of the past two years, Whitaker's test scores have been the lowest of any middle school in the state.

Parental income is one of the primary predictors of test scores, but Whitaker students are far from being the most impoverished in Oregon.

Ted Feller, who took over as principal at the school last fall, noticed this incongruity: "I was puzzled about why it was the lowest-performing middle school in the state while it was 27th in poverty level," he wrote later.

One of the reasons Whitaker students perform poorly may be that they're often sick and miss a lot of school. In three of the past five years, Whitaker has had the highest rate of absenteeism among Portland's 17 middle schools, significantly higher than other schools that serve students from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds.

Whitaker's teachers also miss a lot of school. On a recent day, there were more than a dozen substitute teachers in the building, which staff members say isn't unusual.

Although the district's statistics on teacher sick days are sketchy, numbers for this year show that Whitaker teachers have taken twice as much sick leave as teachers at nearby Beaumont Middle School, and nearly twice as much as teachers at Ockley Green, a school to which Whitaker is often compared.

In addition to inexplicably poor test scores and high absenteeism, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that Whitaker has a lot in common with a doctor's waiting room.

In January, well before any of them were aware of the records that detail a decade of radon testing and air-quality complaints, 17 Whitaker staffers circulated a petition in an attempt to draw attention to their health issues. "Several staff members have been experiencing respiratory problems for quite some time in Whitaker Middle School. Different people have complained at different times to our administrators. No positive response has been forthcoming, " the petition read in part. "Coming to a job that is a hazard to your health is not acceptable."

The teacher who had taken radon readings, Sue Walenza, noticed that eight teachers in her hallway, which is on the lower level where the air quality is the worst, suffered greater than normal health problems, ranging from migraines to bronchitis to an apparent seizure.

While teachers are the most vocal about Whitaker's ills, the school's most vulnerable population is the more than 2,500 students who have attended the school in the past decade.

Children have immune systems that are less robust than adults', they breathe more often, and their cells are developing more rapidly. "My kids are sick all the time," says Clara Lafayette, an eighth-grade teacher. "They always have headaches, runny noses and they don't seem to be able to concentrate."

It might be tempting to attribute the complaints at Whitaker to the sickness expected in any school and the stress of working in difficult surroundings. That used to be the position of John Mays, a sixth-grade teacher at the school. "I heard people complain, and I thought they were just whiners," says Mays, who runs and lifts weights every day in addition to helping to coach Benson High's track team.

But last year, Mays was shifted from a relatively well-ventilated room on an upper floor to a bottom-floor room near the part of Whitaker known as "A Pod," where radon readings and carbon dioxide measurements (neither of which he knew about) had historically been the highest. "Now, I get a headache every day," Mays says. "I have felt like I was going to pass out, and the nausea has been unbelievable."

Mays isn't the only person suffering from moving to A Pod. When Ted Feller became Whitaker's principal last fall, one of his first initiatives was to consolidate Whitaker's nearly 700 students, who were widely dispersed in a building designed to hold more than twice that number.

Feller clustered everyone in classrooms around Whitaker's atrium, which allows sunlight into the cheerless building. Unbeknownst to the new principal, however, the atrium and the rooms around it have historically contained the greatest concentrations of radon and carbon dioxide. "They didn't tell me the truth about the building," Feller says now.

In January and February, the district's environmental safety office responded to complaints about air quality and made minor adjustments to ventilation. Wolfe maintains that the notion that poor air quality is causing widespread sickness at Whitaker is "a stretch."

He acknowledges, however, that since the shift into A Pod, health complaints have increased. Sandra DeBellis, a teacher who moved to a room directly across from the atrium, says that since the move she has twice visited the emergency room with migraines. One was so severe, she says, "I wanted them to amputate my head."

Parents and faculty weren't the only ones who didn't know about Whitaker's radon and ventilation problems. It appears that outgoing superintendent Ben Canada and school board members were also unaware of the problems.

In February, Board Chairwoman Debbie Menashe received a copy of a letter that teachers union president Richard Garrett sent to Wolfe inquiring about radon at Whitaker. But Menashe told WW that she believed the inquiry was being addressed and that in any case she was unaware of the history of radon at the school.

Last month, Canada floated the idea of closing Whitaker. He reportedly placed the school on the chopping block because of its abysmal tests, however--not because of health concerns.

The few people who were aware, including Wolfe and his boss, director of facilities Pam Brown, have never made the building's apparent sickness an issue in the ongoing efforts to reduce the district's oversupply of real estate. "We've never had any discussion of Whitaker's environmental issues in facilities meetings," Wolfe acknowledges.

That may soon change, says school board vice-chairman Marc Abrams. "I want to hear as soon as possible what we can do to move the kids to a safer part of the building," he says, "and to figure out whether the building is viable in the long run."

Wolfe says he's committed to making sure the building is safe. But teachers in the building are still sick and still skeptical. "If this problem was happening at West Sylvan," says Clara Lafayette, referring to an affluent westside middle school, "they would have fixed it a long time ago."

CLEARING THE AIR

Radon has been seeping out of Alameda Ridge for thousands of years, but it's not clear that Whitaker always contained dangerous amounts of the radioactive gas. Records show that limited testing done in 1987 and 1988 yielded results well below the EPA action level.

There are a couple of reasons why the radon levels may have increased over time. The most obvious is that as the building aged, its foundation developed more cracks and leaks, which let in more radon.

Another explanation has to do with money. For starters, the district's maintenance budget has been cut dramatically since 1990, reducing engineering staff and delaying routine troubleshooting and repair.

Second, in the early '90s the district installed a computerized energy-conservation system at Whitaker that shut the ventilation system down on evenings and weekends. Before that, say three present and former employees familiar with the system, fans and blowers ran 24 hours a day. Even now, however, the school is the second-most expensive school in the district to operate; at $805 per student, Whitaker is nearly double the district average.

Whitaker's system works by recirculating air that has been heated (or cooled, depending on the season); typically only 10 or 15 percent of the air in the building is "fresh."

That means if radon enters the building and is not expelled, readings will remain high. Cornell University's Alan Hedge, an expert on indoor air quality, says part of Whitaker's problem may be insufficient fresh air. "Ten to 15 percent is an absolutely minimal amount of outdoor air," he says. "It's almost impossible to get enough ventilation at that level."

District environmental-safety director Patrick Wolfe disagrees that conservation efforts are to blame, but he concedes that the design of Whitaker's ventilation system is problematic. After circulating through classrooms, he explains, air returns from schoolrooms to the central blowers through concrete tunnels that are both cracked and buried in radon-rich soil.

"The only way to solve the problem is to bring 100 percent fresh air into the building and blow it right out," says Wolfe's assistant, Andy Fridley. "But you can't do that because it's too expensive." --NJ


Whitaker Middle School was originally Adams High School, nationally recognized as a model of experimental education. Adams closed in 1981 due to low enrollment.




To learn more about radon, carbon dioxide in schools and indoor air quality, go to www.epa.gov/iaq/index.html . The University of Iowa radon study can be found at www.cheec.uiowa.edu/misc/radon.html .




Based on a national residential radon survey completed in 1991, the average indoor radon level is 1.3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) in the United States. The average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L.




Outdoor air typically contains about 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide.




Air pressure differentials between Whitaker's interior and the ground below act almost as a pump; the building effectively sucks radon in through cracks and holes in its foundation and wall.




Central Catholic High School is spending a million dollars to renovate the track and athletic fields at Fernhill Park directly adjacent to Whitaker, fueling speculation that the parochial school has long-term plans to buy the school.
 
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