BOE, WOSD officials discuss health issues in schools

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange School District administrators updated the West Orange Board of Education and members of the public at the Dec. 11 BOE meeting about the water and air quality in the school buildings, bringing up-to-date results of legionella bacteria testing in all schools and carbon dioxide level testing at West Orange High School. The budget for remediating both issues was also discussed.

Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez explained what legionella is at the meeting and said there are different types that could potentially cause Legionnaires’ disease.

“Earlier this year a parent reported that her child had contracted legionella at Redwood,” de Mendez said. “That was an unconfirmed case. The student did not have Legionnaires’ disease. We have no confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in our district at all. In response, however, to be proactive, the board asked us to have all of our schools tested and we began to do so.”

According to the report, Redwood Elementary School was tested Aug. 2. Of the 14 areas in the school tested, three were positive for legionella. The chlorination process put in place to alleviate the bacteria was done shortly thereafter, and Redwood is now cleared of legionella.

According to the report, the schools that were tested and did not show any signs of legionella bacteria are: the Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center, Kelly Elementary School and Liberty Middle School. Redwood, Washington Elementary School, St. Cloud Elementary School, Mt. Pleasant Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School were remediated and cleared of bacteria.

Hazel Elementary School was chlorinated Dec. 12, and tested again Dec. 13. A sink at Gregory Elementary School was chlorinated Dec. 11, and was also retested Dec. 13.

Edison Middle School and WOHS needed the most remediation, and de Mendez said that filters have been installed in both schools as a temporary solution. EMS was tested again Dec. 13. At WOHS the showers have been shut down and the showerheads replaced. Only the ones that are frequently used will reopen after remediation.

“It’s common to see legionella in large buildings and in older buildings,” de Mendez said. “The fact that the legionella was found in our water system does not automatically mean that the drinking water is a source for Legionnaires’ disease.”

De Mendez said the illness is contracted when water mist is inhaled, such as through a shower, cooling tower or hot tub. All three of those things are at WOHS, which is why the district is continuing to remediate the school.

She also said that when she spoke to West Orange Health Officer Theresa DeNova on Dec. 11, DeNova confirmed that Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious between people and cannot be contracted by drinking or touching water. Healthy people are at little risk, if any, according to DeNova. There are, however, people who are at a higher risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease; they include those over the age of 50; current or former smokers; alcoholics; anyone with an immune, respiratory, kidney or lung disease; diabetics; a person with cancer; and organ-transplant recipients.

“Anyone who falls into those categories is at a higher risk than a healthier person but still at a low risk for contracting Legionnaires’ disease because it is not readily contracted via drinking water,” de Mendez said.

The district receives its water supply from New Jersey American Water, which de Mendez said goes through a chlorination and purifying process. That means that the legionella bacteria are most likely coming from an outside element.

“It’s further compounded by the plumbing in our older buildings because we have dead ends,” de Mendez said. “If there’s plumbing that doesn’t have an outlet and the water doesn’t completely flush through, then it provides an opportunity for legionella to grow. If we shut the water down, we exacerbate the problem because then water is not being circulated through the system.”

Even though Legionnaires’ disease cannot be contracted by drinking water, de Mendez said that the district is providing bottled water for anyone who is at a higher risk or not comfortable using the school water fountains.

“We need to develop a water management plan to reduce legionella growth and spreading in the schools,” de Mendez said. “That will include a team that identifies where it could grow, establish ways to intervene when the limits are not met, making sure that the temperature of the water is the same everywhere and explore high frequency use areas.”

The district has spent approximately $171,000 so far to investigate and clear the schools of legionella.

John Calavano, the BOE business administrator, then updated the board and public about the carbon dioxide levels at WOHS, after students in the Fight for Green Club launched an investigation earlier this year to find out why high school students and teachers were experiencing constant tiredness and headaches inside the building.

Carbon dioxide levels were discovered to be too high in sections of the building, and the district tested all schools in an effort to solve the problem. Calavano said that the elementary school testing was completed Dec. 11, and the results are expected to take two weeks to come back.

“Regarding the repair of the five-unit ventilators for classrooms that had high readings at the high school, the parts were shipped today and will be installed immediately when they come in,” he said at the Dec. 11 meeting.

According to Calavano, an engineer met with Buildings and Grounds Director Robert Csigi and told him that it will likely cost more than the estimated $1.2 million to replace the HVAC system at WOHS because the estimate does not take into account general construction and electrical work. Calavano said that the final total could possibly be double that number.

“In the meantime, the recommendation is to make sure all the vents and ducts are not blocked,” he said. “We also have to ensure that the ventilators are turned on. Windows and hallway doors should stay open. The windows don’t have to be completely open, but it should be cracked to let as much fresh air into the classroom as possible. Doors should stay open until funding is available for replacements or repairs.”

Several parents at the meeting said that money would be available in the budget sooner if the BOE had not unanimously voted to give $3 million of the additional $3.5 million the district received in state aid in August back to the residents of West Orange as property tax relief. BOE Vice President Mark Robertson agreed, and the BOE members said they would continue to talk about how to spend the $9 million it has left in the budget for the year on other projects that need to be addressed immediately.