Students and staff members at Whitesides Elementary in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina continue to be exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide months after district leaders first began trying to identify and remediate the issue.
We initially reported on this situation back in October after two of the school’s youngest students were unable to be initially awakened from their naps one afternoon. School personnel called for emergency medical services to attend to the two students – causing understandable alarm among parents.
Since that time, district officials have taken some measures to identify the source of elevated carbon dioxide levels – and some repairs have been made to alleviate the problem. An environmental testing company performed spore sampling and identified several areas throughout the school building’s ventilation system requiring remediation of various kinds of mold – which could be contributing to the elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the air.
The national standard for air quality in classrooms recommended by ASHRAE – the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers – is that CO2 levels should stay close to 400 parts per million and below 800 parts per million.
“If the threshold is exceeded, it is recommended to ventilate the space, leave the room, and renew the air,” according to ASHRAE.
This week, the reemergence of elevated carbon dioxide levels at Whitesides prompted teachers to open classroom doors and windows to improve air circulation. Because open doors and windows are seen as a school safety risk, security had to be called in as well, according to a concerned parent.
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On Tuesday, January 23, 2024, sampling results from Whitesides showed the carbon dioxide levels in 57 rooms averaged 943 parts per million – well above the national standard. The highest value was 1,519 parts per million and the lowest was 406 parts per million. Forty of the classrooms exceeded the national standard while twenty-five had carbon dioxide levels exceeding 1,000 parts per million – the level at which symptoms like fatigue, headaches, slower performance and an inability to think are common for adults, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Andy Pruitt, director of communications for the Charleston County School District (CCSD), said the district has convened an advisory group comprised of industry experts, school staff, teachers and parents to address the ongoing issues.
“In addition to the CO2 levels, the group has been focused on the overall health of the building and air quality,” Pruitt said. “In addition to monitoring CO2, the process has included the investigation of other possible contributors and remedies for each. There is a plan in place to replace the dedicated outside air systems by the end of the calendar year. The plan includes a system design, purchase, and installation. Additionally, over the last three months, various repairs and parts replacements were conducted to separate components of Whitesides’ to maintain proper outdoor airflow. Currently, the system is functioning properly and classroom CO2 levels are typical for indoor environments.”
Questions about the status and cost of mold remediation at Whitesides were deferred and Pruitt advised FITSNews to submit a FOIA request for that information.
“As with all our schools, CCSD monitors the HVAC system performance constantly throughout the school day with on-site staff and remote systems,” Pruitt said. “As soon as there is an indication of any problem, school staff is informed and technicians are dispatched to assess and repair. At Whitesides, a comprehensive testing and balancing of the school’s outdoor airflow units is scheduled this week to address the need for frequent repairs more directly and the process to replace the units years ahead of schedule is now underway.”
A study of 100 U.S. schools conducted by the University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program found a direct correlation between student academic achievement and classroom air quality. It found measurable improvements in students’ math and reading scores were observed when indoor air quality was improved.
Classroom air quality concerns are a common cause of calls to the S.C. Education Association (SCEA). Sherry East, SCEA president and a high school science teacher, said healthy buildings are a necessary part of education. As an example, East pointed to the issues explored in the Corridor of Shame documentary, which addressed the age and condition of some South Carolina schools and the way the infrastructure impacts teachers and students.
“You want to have a healthy building all the way around,” East said. “You want to have the right temperature, you want to have the right air quality. It’s basic. If children are disoriented or having headaches, that is going to curb your learning. I think we want the optimal conditions for our children and air quality should be one of them.”
Despite the impact on student and teacher health, the elimination of mold and mitigation of elevated carbon dioxide levels in classroom environments are not issues mandated by state or federal regulatory agencies – most notably the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC).
“Because of this, SCDHEC doesn’t have authority to regulate mold or indoor air quality and can’t test, monitor, or inspect for mold or indoor air quality in homes or public buildings,” a spokesperson for the agency said.
The agency provides information and resources to assist residents who are dealing with these issues – especially those that occur as the result of flooding or severe weather.
FITSNews will continue to follow the developing situation at Whitesides – and other schools around the state. If you have similar concerns about the indoor air quality of a school in your district, please contact our outlet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.
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