By Nona Tepper
The Forest Park District 91 school board voted unanimously to end the contract of a health service coordinator a regular meeting on June 13, after the employee, Daniel Wilson, emailed every parent in the district alleging there was a growing mold and air-quality crisis at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School and Forest Park Middle School (FPMS).
Wilson, whose last day on the job will be June 19, said "there's good and bad results" to sending out his 41-page mold manifesto and that he plans to head south, out of state, to look for another job at another school.
"There's herbs you can smoke and have a really good benefit, and then there's stuff you can touch and it will kill you. So herbs are good and bad, just like molds are good and bad," Wilson said. "According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], anything mold you can see, or something you can smell, is to be taken care of immediately."
During the past two years, Wilson said staff members at Field-Stevenson and FPMS have experienced "anaphylaxis" and have complained about a peculiar odor at the middle school. Wilson said he tried to come up with a fragrance-free policy, thinking their allergic reactions "had to do with something in the air."
He said he brought the policy up to Superintendent Louis Cavallo who "shot it down immediately," telling him the idea would have to go through the school board.
"I was also told that if the staff member cannot handle the environment, they don't need to work here," Wilson said. "That's inexcusable to me."
In March, Wilson, who suffers from exercise-induced asthma, then contacted the administration about what he believed was mold in ceiling tiles and a leaky pipe. He said "several" parents, teachers and administrators were also concerned about the presence of mold but were "too scared to bring this up to their own main office administrators, in fear for their jobs."
He also contacted the Illinois State Board of Education, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), asking for experts to perform an in-person inspection at the schools.
Frustrated he was unable to get anyone to come out to the district, Wilson sent district parents an email titled "Forest Park Middle School: The Battle of Mold and Leaking Pipe" on June 10.
The document outlines his attempt to get D91 to replace a pipe, perform a professional mold inspection, and shows the results of a test he performed using a mold kit from Home Depot.
Wilson's Home Depot mold test found two types of mold in the nurse's office: Apergillus, a mold species commonly present in air that can cause asthma, and Chaetomium, a mold species commonly found on water-damaged buildings.
Dressed in a pair of nursing scrubs at the June 13 meeting, Wilson defended his attempts to try and schedule school building inspections and use the district database to email parents, saying, "Just being a nurse in a public setting, it is my job to take care of staff and students and nothing I did was outside of my realm."
After corresponding with Wilson, federal investigators sent the district a letter on June 5 requiring it to investigate mold, the cracked pipe and the school's air quality. The next day, D91 submitted to OSHA results of a test conducted on May 28 by the ECS Midwest environmental engineering firm. The test found no microbial growth, that the schools' air quality met federal standards and that airborne fungal spores posed no risk to students and staff.
Wilson said he previously had submitted Freedom of Information requests to the district, asking for copies of any inspections performed. He said he never received any.
"Whether or not there's mold, there needs to be something in place where staff can freely come and bring their ideas forward without fear of repercussion because, as they all told me, if I fought this I would lose my job, and here I am," Wilson said.
During the June 13 board meeting, Cavallo outlined the district's process for maintaining its buildings, saying every year investigators perform a life-safety inspection, where they walk through the buildings and point out everything that needs to be fixed.
This year, D91 also had its state-mandated 10-year life safety survey, where engineers, architects and construction managers surveyed all D91 buildings, looking for anything that could impact the safety of students.
Inspectors determined the district had five years to make an estimated $300,000 worth of repairs. At Field-Stevenson, they recommended minor repairs to the food services area, office and art rooms at a cost of $34,800. Repairs to FPMS' receiving and delivery room, art and art storage rooms, and science storage rooms were estimated at $36,000. The board approved the repair work at a meeting in January.
"We were actually commended in all the buildings for the condition, overall cleanliness, etc.," Cavallo said. "No red flags, no mold."
Cavallo also noted that the schools' air filters are changed every three months, outside units are cleaned once a year and that the district had always planned to replace the corroded pipe.
On May 28, the district also had ECS Midwest test the schools' air quality and mold levels, and "the tests came back very conclusive that the air quality inside the building is much cleaner than it is outside," Cavallo said. "There is literally mold everywhere … you're breathing mold right now. But the level of mold, and whether or not it's harmful mold, is what determines whether or not there is a problem."
Cavallo said the district chose ECS Midwest, "just in case there is concern that we found somebody that is going to fudge things," after a referral from its architect, Wight & Company. The district publicly posted ECS Midwest's test results on the D91 website on June 10, in an effort to be as transparent as possible, Cavallo said.
"We are very sorry that a lot of people were alarmed for nothing, because there was no concern. There never was," he said.
In regard to the smell at the middle school, Cavallo said there has been an "ongoing investigation" all year about what is causing the odor. At first, he said the district thought it was chemicals the district used when it waxed the floor over the summer, since the smell started then. Later, they thought it might be a waste pipe. Recently, a plumber went through the building and determined there was stagnant water. Cavallo said the district plans to flush the pipes this summer.
"Hopefully that will take care of it," Cavallo said. "It's been tough to track down what this smell is, but it is not harmful. Even the ECS engineer who came to do the testing said, 'That's not mold, it's not harmful. Don't worry, it's just smelly.'"
School board member Eric Connor noted that "there aren't too many molds that are actually harmful" and said he felt confident that ECS' investigation was done thoroughly.
"You know, there's a mold out there that has saved more lives than it has killed, and it's penicillin. If you like cheese, you like mold," Connor said. "So it sounds scary, but it generally isn't."