Colleen Wright / WUFT News
Room 607 at Starke Elementary School was one of the rooms tested for mold that led to the school shutdown in August. An air quality test found an abundance of air particles that can cause allergic disease.
On the days she was present in class, Juliana Moore’s students knew her by her navy blue scrubs and her protective surgical mask.
And when Moore was a no-show, the reason for her absence was obvious to her health science students at the Bradford-Union Technical Center in Starke: illness, again.
Those absences happened all too often, and Moore had her eye on a culprit — mold.
The Technical Center is a neighbor to Starke Elementary School, which was shut down before the school year began in August for a mold detox.
Starke Elementary’s 500 students and 60 teachers and administrators were relocated to schools around the district after an air quality test
ordered by Superintendent Chad Farnsworth on Aug. 5 tested positive for elevated levels of mold inside the 16-year-old facility.
As carpets are ripped apart and droning fans dry out classrooms, Starke Elementary students remain unable to return to their building until March 18.
“That gives us time to tie up any loose ends,” said Brian Graham, Bradford County School District spokesman. “We don’t want to move students in the middle of testing.”
Life should get back to normal for those at Starke Elementary next year. But for Moore, it once seemed as if normalcy might not ever resume.
‘Ongoing, on-again, off-again sort of thing’
Starting in August 2012, the 59-year-old registered nurse from Brooker powered through her packed teaching schedule of health sciences at the technical center, topped off with night classes two days a week. She relished the rewarding feeling of guiding adults toward a career.
This past February, Moore began running high fevers. She was soon treated for pneumonia but was diagnosed with influenza A and wound up being quarantined at home for five days under doctor’s orders.
Moore uses an oxygen tank after developing various illnesses earlier this year.
Feeling rested, she soon returned to the classroom. But just as before, it wasn’t long until she was back home for days at a time.
“I’d get sick, work a few days, get sick, come home, rest a few days, get sick again, go back to work, get sick again,” Moore said. “It was just an ongoing, on-again, off-again sort of thing.”
In May, Moore underwent several X-rays and CT scans and running up thousands of dollars in services and medication bills.
She gave away Pookie, her Senegal parrot of 10 years, because doctors correlated her hypersensitivity pneumonitis to bird dander. Soon, she relied on an oxygen tank and steroids to get through the day.
Moore had had enough. Because of her pattern of recovering at home and getting sick at work, she grew suspicious that the building was contributing to her health issues.
Moore took her own swab samples of the grime on door frames, ceiling vents and desktop and send it to the IMS Laboratory in New Jersey.
The IMS results
were positive for mold and fiberglass particles.
Moore then lobbied her supervisor, David Harris, and technical center director Christy Reddish, as well as Bradford County School District Maintenance Operations Manager Richard Sapp, for an air quality test after the Fourth of July break.
Shortly after, workers cleaned the room until it was spotless, but her symptoms persisted.
Moore said Sapp believed the mess was dirt, not mold. But after Reddish’s urging, an air quality test was conducted
, and Moore moved her summer class out of Building 11 and into another building.
Although her condition stabilized because of heavy medications, Moore still wasn’t recovering at a steady rate, leading her to believe that the mold was airborne. She remembered a “rainforest” dripping out of the A/C vents and a constant need to put towels on the floor to dry up the mess.
Work orders reveal ongoing, systemic issues
Records support the claims of potential mold problems. Since September 2008, 26 work orders concerning mold and water leaks have been submitted; 10 at Starke Elementary School and 16 at the technical center.
At Starke Elementary, some requests regarding the same location and unresolved issues appeared more than once. A work order filed Sept. 24, 2009, requested an air quality test for Room 306.
“We have had problems with this classroom with mold and mildew,” the description read.
Although the work order marks Oct. 28, 2010, as the official completed date, the resolution suggests the complaint was addressed by Maintenance Director Sapp the very same day: “Mr. Sapp talked to teacher. Classroom is ok at this time. 9/24 close wo.”
But less than a month later, Oct. 14, 2009, another work order prompted an immediate air quality test.
“AIR QUALITY TEST!!!Room 3-06 A student has developed an allergic reaction to something in the classroom. This student has developed a rash, hives and an itching problem. The student has also seeked medical attention.”
Graham would not provide names of employees who submitted work orders.
An Environmental Diagnostics Lab report addressed to Sapp summarized the results of tests on the carpet of classrooms 306 and 501
. The report included swab and air tests.
Test results found significant amounts of aspergillus, a rapidly growing fungus that produces a musty odor and can cause chronic ear infections, in the air. Some quantities of trichoderma, a rapidly growing fungus that can cause allergic disease, were also found.
An air quality test was also requested in 2009
by Sapp for Room 607, the same room that was examined in the test that lead to the shutdown of Starke Elementary this year, but only checking for airborne pollutants. The report found an abundance of opaque particles, which can be significant in a case of respiratory disorder, and epicoccum, which can cause allergic disease.
In the August Starke Elementary air quality test, mold particles were found in air conditioning ducts.
Classroom cleanliness was not the issue. Rather, it was the non-living spaces where problems developed.
An inconclusive health link
Comparing air quality tests from a few years prior to the more recent tests, especially through different companies, is apples and oranges, said John Lednicky, a microbiologist and a University of Florida environmental and global health professor.
Lednicky suggested the tests should be repeated a few times and compared to the weather outside, as weather can have an impact on mold. These reports, he said, only give hints as to what might be the problem.
“Just because you find fungi doesn’t mean you’ve found the problem,” Lednicky said.
He concluded there is “certainly a problem with the air-handling situation” that could be a maintenance or engineering issue. Additionally, the high readings of opaque particles in the test suggest that something might be decomposing within the building.
“It’s hard to tell if it’s neglect or if the person wasn’t convinced there was a problem,” Lednicky said.
Graham, the school district spokesman, said Starke Elementary receives regular maintenance.
The possible link, Lednicky said, from Moore’s sickness to a mold issue inside the Vocational Technical building is “far from being conclusive.”
He suggested Moore might have had an underlying health condition that could’ve been provoked by mold or something else in her workplace.
Like a peanut allergy, some are more sensitive than others.
Moore’s pulmonology specialist, Dr. Daniel Urbine, did not return several phone calls and messages to discuss Moore’s diagnosis.
Since Sally Ford became the department’s environmental health director Oct. 1, the Bradford County Department of Health has not received any complaints about illnesses due to mold.
“We don’t really get involved too much,” she said, “If it opens back up and we see an obvious problem or see something that could turn into a problem, then we would get involved.”
Dan Mann, preparedness planner at the Bradford County Department of Health, said Richard Land, the department’s former environmental health director, offered the department’s services to the school at a meeting regarding the school’s closing.
So far, the school hasn’t sought help from the department, Mann said. Land has since retired.
Not going “back in there”
Moore resigned in August — just before her first-year anniversary teaching at the technical center — after not receiving the air quality test on time.
“I felt the building was contributing to my illness,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go back in there.”
She filed a worker’s compensation claim with the Bradford County School Board to pay for her medical bills. Earlier this month, the school board offered Moore $1,000 for her troubles, but Moore’s lawyers plan to sue for more money — not just for current medical bills.
They want future expenses, too.
Citing that pending claim, the school district declined further comment.
Moore is now employed as a nurse in the Lake Butler Hospital Emergency Room. She is off steroids and no longer on oxygen. She’s currently fostering two rescue birds and has no medical problems.
Although Moore keeps in touch with many of her former students, she doesn’t look back.
“I really enjoy teaching,” she said, “but I’m just done. I’m not going to make myself go back to a place that’s making me sick.”