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Expert: Odor made Cortland Elementary kids sick

Changes to school's air monitoring plan urged

DeKALB – A consultant has suggested DeKalb School District 428 make some slight changes to Cortland Elementary School’s air monitoring plan in order to keep students and staff protected, a solution that did not please some Cortland Elementary School parents.

Geoff Bacci, a certified industrial hygienist from Aries Consulting, was hired to assess what happened Jan. 14 when 71 students and staff from Cortland received medical treatment after the odor of old trash from the nearby DeKalb County landfill run by Waste Management infiltrated the building’s ventilation system.

He presented his findings, conclusions and recommendations Thursday night at DeKalb High School to a group of more than 60 people.

Bacci said a single-point hydrogen sulfide monitor, which the school has near the front office, is appropriate for the school, but suggested the school institute some changes when monitoring for the foul-smelling and potentially harmful landfill gas, which was not detected Jan. 14.

He recommended the data be reviewed a health professional and the monitor be calibrated with a battery change monthly. Further, he said, the monitor should be serviced annually by a representative. He urged the district to put strong written procedures in place to ensure these steps are being followed.

Bacci also suggested that buses should be staged on the west side of a turnaround in the parking lot rather than directly adjacent to the school in order to avoid diesel exhaust from getting into the school. Finally, he recommended the school address air filtration issues in the building and continue monitoring for carbon monoxide.

Bacci explained that the patients treated for carbon monoxide exposure had levels from 1 percent to 8 percent, which Bacci said would not have caused anyone to become sick.

That was because of the smell.

“Clearly the odor was the reason why children felt sick. Carbon monoxide was something used as a criteria for treatment, but was not a precipitating event,” Bacci said. “We can improve the air monitoring plan a bit and we can improve overall procedures.”

Bacci went on to detail the levels of hydrogen sulfide the school monitors, mentioning detectable levels were present in the school in Spring 2013. The levels had not reached that which would cause an alarm on the monitor to sound, but that did little to calm some parents.

A handful of other parents continued to question the safety of the school and whether officials would follow through with Bacci’s recommendation for more monitoring.

“These recommendations were already put to the district,” parent Lisa Williams said. “I mean, changing a battery? How do we know any of that’s been done ... . We know this machine is critical to those kids’ safety.”

Some parents renewed calls to close the school, which was built for $15 million and opened in 2009.

“There’s no conspiracy here,” school board President Tracy Williams said. “There’s no one in that building, especially the staff, turning off an alarm to work in an unsafe environment.”

Williams added District 428 would follow Bacci’s suggestion to put in written protocol for the monthly and annual monitoring enhancements, adding district officials plan to stick within the 30-day timeline they originally set to put a plan in place.

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