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Sunset Lake teachers raise health safety concerns following a spike in staff illnesses

Teachers at Sunset Lake Elementary School are worried about the air quality in the classroom. (WWMT)
Teachers at Sunset Lake Elementary School are worried about the air quality in the classroom. (WWMT)
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Sunset Lake Elementary School teachers, in a statement made public Friday, demanded that the Vicksburg Community Schools correct air quality issues suspected of contributing to health problems among staff and students.

"The Teachers of Sunset Lake Elementary School cannot, in good conscience, return to school in the fall without making all of their efforts and the information they have gathered public," the teachers said in the statement. "It has become an ethical and moral dilemma for the teachers because ... they love their school and they have a great respect for their community."

The statement was made by Sunset Lake teachers along with the help of Wonder Makers Environmental, and Brighton-based attorney Shari Pollesch. Pollesch represents the interest of the teachers, not the parents, and said the statement is asking the district to take action in fixing the school's air-quality issues.

The teachers claim that the building’s 60-year-old air ventilation system is behind an unusually high number of illnesses reported since the winter. They said they were first alerted to the issue when a teacher suffered two strokes over a period of three months last winter. Soon, other reports were made involving teachers and students with migraine headaches and upper respiratory infections. Additionally, dozens of teachers reported reproductive health issues.

A least 35 cases of unusual illnesses have been reported , the teachers said in the statement.

The teachers said the reproductive issues they've experienced have been alarming. In the statement, they've experienced the following issues: nine miscarriages, 20 cases of infertility, endometriosis, or other reproductive issues, and nine have had to undergo hysterectomies.

Vicksburg Schools Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said Friday that the district has been aware of the issues since February. In March, he said, the district hired Nova Environmental, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to test the air quality.

The testing uncovered some signs of mold in the building, O’Neill said, but the air quality inside the building was deemed safe. At that time, O'Neill said, the district took action t o combat the issue.

"We change air filters regularly. We’ve cleaned all our uni-vents, did a lot of that work over spring break, to make sure fresh air was getting into the building," O'Neill said.

"We have not found any link between the building and sickness. To say we’re sending kids to a building that’s unsafe has not been proven," O'Neill said. "We’re committed, if there is a connection between sickness and the building, we want to know."

O'Neill said the district has enlisted the help of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come and inspect the school and recommend action. An update on the situation released by the district June 10 stated, "the district intends to work closely with the team from NIOSH to determine the best course of action moving forward."

The teachers, however, pointed to a second opinion from Wonder Makers Environmental, based in Kalamazoo, which inspected the building briefly in May. Wonder Makers was brought in by the Michigan Education Association, the state teachers union.

Michael Pinto, the chief executive officer at Wonder Makers who conducted that inspection, also reviewed the previous testing by Nova. Pinto said there is definitely a mold problem in the building.

“At the time those samples were taken, we believe that it clearly indicated they had a mold problem,” Pinto said. “We highlighted that for the MEA and that’s actually in our report we gave to the administration.”

Wonder Makers has not been given the authority to conduct an in-depth inspection or rigorous testing. Pinto said the MEA has not allowed them to do so. Wonder Makers made several recommendations to the district, including to allow them to do a full inspection, to replace the uni-vent systems in each classroom, to remove ceiling insulation that has tested positive for mold, and to conduct a health survey of staff and students.

Pinto said the district needs to conduct a health survey, especially for students, because it is easy to do. He also believes NIOSH will be concerned only with teacher's health, due to government agency's nature and responsibility. He hopes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will get involved as well to protect the safety of the students.

The teachers have sent their health concerns to the Kalamazoo County Department of Health and Human Services. They received a letter back saying an analysis of their health issues "lies outside the role and capacity of the local health department," and referred the inquiry to the Michigan State Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA.

O’Neill said the school district is committed to the health and safety of the students and staff, and is working on the problem. The district is already replacing carpeting and ceiling tiles in the building, following one of the recommendations from Nova.

“When concerns were brought up about Sunset, we have been committed and always will be committed to ruling out everything that could be a danger,” O’Neill said. “Throughout the process the school district has been transparent with our students and staff, and we’re looking forward to working with NIOSH in the fall.”

WWMT reached out to the Kalamazoo Education Association and Michigan Education Association, and are awaiting a response.

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