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State finds indoor air problems at Winthrop Middle School

Inspectors with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found numerous air quality problems at the Winthrop Middle School last year, including dirty air conditioners, old filters,  and high carbon dioxide levels.

The inspectors’ report, sent to school officials on Jan. 23, made 30 recommendations to improve the air quality in the school, which has about 475 students. 

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“I’m very concerned as a citizen. The middle school is just about as bad as it gets,” said David Osborne, a Winthrop resident who read the report. “The air is completely stagnant, and you have hundreds of kids in the same room.”

The most alarming findings: elevated carbon dioxide levels. The school had one of the highest carbon dioxide levels of schools north of Boston that were tested in the past year, according to a review of indoor air quality reports by the state. While the report says that high carbon dioxide is “not a problem in and of itself,” high numbers indicate poor ventilation.

According to the report, the Department of Public Health recommends 800 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide for publicly occupied buildings. However, they have a lower threshold for schools, 600 ppm, because youth are “considered to be a more sensitive population.”

Carbon dioxide levels at the Winthrop Middle School were above 800 ppm in 51 of 62  areas during the test on Nov. 2, 2012, with many rooms yielding results in the thousands.

According to the report, “Inadequate ventilation and/or elevated temperatures are major causes of complaints such as respiratory, eye, nose, and throat irritation, lethargy, and headaches.”

‘The main concerns were around the CO2 levels. It’s a comfort issue. We will be working with our custodial and maintenance staff, getting involved with preventative maintenance.’

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Osborne said he knows a student who has experienced health problems, including respiratory difficulties and swelling around the mouth, since she started attending the middle school. He said the girl has missed days from school and visited the hospital because of the symptoms that she believes are caused by the school’s poor ventilation.

Martha G. Kelleher, principal of the Winthrop Middle School, said that while she is not aware of any students with respiratory ailments, she has read the Department of Public Health report and is taking action.

“I took some of their recommendations, like opening the windows between classes,” she said. Kelleher added that the school will be working on improving ventilation during February break when the building is vacant.

“The main concerns were around the CO2 levels. It’s a comfort issue,” she said. “We will be working with our custodial and maintenance staff, getting involved with preventative maintenance.”

Another issue noted in the report was the age of some of the ventilation equipment, called univents. The document states that the school uses its original system, which is more than 35 years old. According to the report, “Despite attempts to maintain the univents, the operational lifespan of the equipment has been exceeded.” The report recommended replacing the system.

“Many of the univents examined had dust and debris accumulated inside cabinets and on radiator fins,’’ the report said. “In many interior classrooms, the ventilation system was not operating.’’

One of the middle school buildings dates to 1945, and additions were constructed in 1954 and 1972, according to the state report. Kelleher said that Winthrop is in the process of designing a new school that would house both middle and high school level students. Because of the district’s building plans, replacement of the univent equipment isn’t on the agenda. She said that she expects the current middle school building to be used as a “swing” school, for use while the high school is under construction. In the meantime, she said, she will address the “small” issues.

Osborne expressed his doubts that the school will follow through with improvements, citing the Department of Public Health air quality report of Winthrop Middle School from May 1999. According to that report, carbon dioxide levels were above 800 ppm in 37 of the 47 areas tested.

“Almost verbatim, you have the same issues,” he said, “but they have worsened.”

Richard Safier, superintendent of schools in Gloucester, said he has seen a significant improvement in the air quality of Gloucester schools since his school system received notice of poor air quality from the Department of Public Health in early 2012.

“There has been an extensive amount of work to improve air quality,” he said.

After hearing of some students who were uncomfortable with the air quality in Gloucester schools, the system initiated air testing last school year. The number of symptom reports has since dropped.

“Now you go into the main office and you can hear the air swishing through,” he said. “We’ll certainly keep our eye on it.”

Christina Jedra can be reached at christina.jedra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaJedra
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