Are school trailers safe? You won't know in Illinois
With many suburban schools at capacity, thousands of students each year are corralled into mobile homes serving as classrooms.
In February, the federal Centers for Disease Control warned that many mobile homes contain potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde.
The study was the latest -- but not the first of its kind.
For several years, reports across the nation have cautioned that this practical solution to school overcrowding could have hidden consequences.
In Illinois, there's no telling. The state doesn't require schools to test toxic levels in trailers -- so schools don't.
Not in Lake County, where there are 26 trailers in use.
Or in DuPage, with 21 trailers. Or McHenry County, with 25. Or in suburban Cook, with well over 100 trailers.
There are 62 untested trailers in Kane County.
Only one district, in Kane County, has tested its trailers, and only very recently.
"Thousands of kids are coming away from these mobile classrooms with adverse health problems," said Phil Pecevich, president of Air Quality Research Inc., a North Carolina company that manufacturers and analyzes formaldehyde monitors.
"It's all pretty nasty. And it's all pretty unregulated," Pecevich said. "If you think about it, parents are paying tax dollars to send their kids to a place where their health is in jeopardy."
Recent inquiries by a Bartlett mother caused the one Kane County district to re-examine its practices.
When Beverly Jaszczurowski asked the Elgin Area School District U-46 school board to check its mobile classrooms for noxious fumes, citing the CDC report, she raised a few eyebrows.
"I know it probably seemed like an odd request at first," the Bartlett mother said. "But my oldest son was born premature; he's very sensitive to odors and gets headaches. I'd done a lot of research on the harmful effects of formaldehyde."
The CDC study found high indoor levels of formaldehyde in travel trailers and mobile homes provided to displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The typical level found was 77 parts per billion. Some trailers were found to have levels above 500 parts per billion, the CDC said.
The typical U.S. home level is 10 to 30 parts per billion, the report said.
Long-term exposure to higher levels can be linked to cancer and respiratory illness, the study says.
"At higher levels," the CDC report states, "people could have acute symptoms such as coughing and irritated eyes and throat. Even at levels too low to cause such symptoms, there could be an increased risk of cancer."
Jaszczurowski suggested students attending class in mobile units for upward of six hours a day could suffer similar health effects as those in Katrina trailers.
"There are serious long-term effects of kids breathing in formaldehyde. … It's not healthy for anyone. It's just not safe," she told the board.
It's not new
The Centers for Disease Control study was released Feb. 14.
Five years before, a California study examined the environmental health conditions in 1,000 classrooms.
Comparing portable and traditional classrooms, formaldehyde concentrations were significantly higher in the portable units.
Fifty percent of the portables had formaldehyde concentrations higher than 27 parts per billion.
While there are no national regulations for formaldehyde, the state of California recommends a person should be exposed to such levels for no more than eight hours at a time.
Four percent of mobile classrooms tested had formaldehyde concentrations over 76 parts per billion -- a level California recommends should be sustained for an hour or less.
Average formaldehyde levels found in the mobile classrooms tested were 32.4 parts per billion, almost 10 parts above the suggested "safe amount."
"We were thinking the formaldehyde levels would be lower than they turned out to be in the portable units," said Gerry Akland, one of the study's main authors.
The toxic substance was significantly less prevalent in traditional classrooms -- with, on average, just 23.7 parts per billion in each room, according to the study.
Illinois requires each county's regional office of education to inspect all mobile classrooms annually.
County inspectors check for unobstructed exits, proper emergency lighting, functional fire alarms and sprinkler systems, and a number of safety hazards.
They do not examine the air quality of a mobile unit.
"It's not a required test," DuPage Regional Superintendent Darlene Ruscitti said.
A district can, of course, independently call in a health department or a private air quality testing firm, Ruscitti said. "It wouldn't necessarily come to us unless there was some issue."
Gary Pickens, Lake County assistant regional superintendent, said his office would "certainly be open to testing if there were grounds."
On March 20, Elgin Area School District U-46 declared that all 64 mobile units would be tested for formaldehyde, two weeks after Jaszczurowski asked that trailers be checked for noxious fumes.
The district hired Park Ridge-based Environ International Corp. to test all its trailers at a cost of approximately $60,000.
The make or model of a trailer doesn't matter much.
All new, unused and unventilated trailers have formaldehyde in them, according to the CDC.
A colorless, chemical gas compound, formaldehyde works as a binding agent in particle board, plywood and fiberboard -- cheap pressed wood products often used for cabinets, furniture and floor-decking. It is also found in some insulation, Akland said.
In poorly ventilated areas, fumes released from formaldehyde irritates individuals' eyes, nose, throat and sinuses. Fumes can also cause headaches, fatigue, diarrhea and disturbed sleep.
Linked to cancer, it is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"For children, this exposure certainly isn't going to do any good, especially if they already have a pre-existing respiratory condition," Akland said. "The headaches and discomfort this exposure can provoke can make learning very difficult."
The formaldehyde levels in the two U-46 trailers were between 1 and 4.7 parts per billion -- way below the standard household range of 10 to 30 parts per billion.
That might not be an accurate representation of average conditions, Pecevich said. "Short-term testing only gives you a small window," Pecevich said.
Pecevich's company supplied formaldehyde monitors and standards to the California Air Resource Board for the 2002 study.
In deciding which monitors to use for the California study, Pecevich said, "we tried two-hour tests, four-hour tests, six-hour tests, all the way up to five-day tests. We found out after comparing thousands of results, those taken over an extended time period gave the most accurate results."
Environ collected a five-hour air sample from U-46 classrooms. CDC officials took a one-hour sample from Katrina trailers.
"Formaldehyde levels can change drastically from hour to hour, morning to evening. In order to get an accurate reading, you really need to measure for five to seven days," Pecevich said.
Ventilation, temperature and humidity all affect the level of formaldehyde in a classroom.
"Air mixture doesn't happen spontaneously," Akland said. "Fumes are often worse when they let the kids in at 9 a.m. -- and better as the afternoon goes on."
Also, formaldehyde levels tend to be lower in colder temperatures, so they could increase in warmer months.
"Ideally you would like to mimic the exact classroom circumstances," Pecevich said. "It's not always completely possible. But you get as close as you can."
U-46 expects results from tests on the rest of its trailers in two weeks.
"I'm glad (formaldehyde levels) are within what somebody says is a safe," Jaszczurowski said upon hearing Monday's results. "But the hard thing is, there are no regulations for what these kids should be exposed to."
"We need standards," Pecevich said. "In the meantime, all these kids are at risk for serious health effects. That's just sinful."
Trailers at our schools
DuPage County 21
Kane County 126
Lake County 26
McHenry County 25
Suburban Cook 100+
Source: Regional offices of education
Here's how to reduce the amount of formaldehyde sources in the classroom.
• Primary indoor sources of formaldehyde are pressed wood building materials and furnishing.
• Newer, removable sources such as freestanding bookshelves and desks made with particleboard should be aired out in a different, well-ventilated location as long as possible, preferably at least for two to three weeks.
• An inspection should be conducted to assure all fans, heating and air-conditioning units are functioning properly
• Keep doors and windows open as much as possible.
• Make sure classrooms are maintained at 30 to 50 percent humidity and at a comfortable temperature. Formaldehyde emissions increase with higher temperatures and higher humidity.
Test the air
• Obtain measurements during school hours with the ventilation system in normal operating mode.
Sources: California Air Resources Board and California Department of Health Services