Officials closed two classrooms at Biddeford High School on Monday after repeated air quality tests showed low to moderate levels of mold spores and high levels of dust.

The closures came after Roberta Bernier, a school board member, reported that her daughter had a severe allergic reaction to dust in one of the rooms and had to be taken to a hospital and injected with an anti-allergy EpiPen.

Another parent said her daughter has had repeated reactions to the mold spores and that the girl’s doctor has warned that further injections from an EpiPen could damage her heart. Laurie Hale said she will look into moving her daughter, Marina Gagne, to Thornton Academy in neighboring Saco if the reactions continue.

Bernier said her daughter, Kelsie, has had headaches since she started a class in September in one of the rooms that was shut down Monday. She had her first allergic reaction in September, Bernier said.

She said Kelsie was fine during the Thanksgiving break, but after an hour in school Monday morning she broke out in hives and left school, even though the two rooms suspected of having the most problems were closed.

“She’s never had any of this,” said Bernier, who stressed that she was speaking as a parent, not a school board member. “We’re talking about honor students that this is affecting so badly they’re failing their classes.”

The school department had three air quality tests done after Bernier complained early this school year.

The first test, in September, turned up high particulate levels, but only trace amounts of the type of spores associated with mold caused by water damage.

A test in October turned up particulate levels higher than outdoor readings, probably because of dust in heating units, and low levels of spores.

This month, another test showed particulate levels above outdoor readings and low to moderate levels of “spores of concern,” which the report said were Aspergillus/Penicillium-like — usually associated with mold caused by water or high moisture levels.

The reports, by Air Quality Management Services, indicated that the particulate levels might be caused by dust from an ongoing renovation of the school. They suggested that the rooms be cleaned by a contractor.

But Superintendent Sarah-Jane Poli said such cleaning is for cases in which high particulate or mold levels are found in homes, which don’t have the high-quality cleaning equipment available at schools.

She said the rooms were cleaned by school maintenance workers.

Another air quality test was done in the two rooms Monday afternoon. Biddeford High Principal Britt Wolfe said those rooms will remain closed today.

A special school board workshop on air quality at the school is scheduled for tonight.

Poli said the school has had problems with water leaks for years, and that’s one of the reasons why school officials sought and received voters’ approval for a $34 million renovation and expansion. Poli said the renovation is now in the second of nine phases.

“If there’s mold there, it’s going to be taken care of” as the renovations proceed, she said.

Poli and Wolfe noted that closing the classrooms has caused problems because parts of the school are construction zones, and space is limited.

Wolfe said the air quality tests were prompted by complaints from a couple of students, but no one is positive what caused the reactions, even though parents have said their children are fine when they’re not in school.

“We’re doing all the testing based on what rooms these students have been in, but we’re not able to conclude that the cause of their reaction is air quality in the classroom,” he said.

Larry Mare, an engineering technician in the Maine Bureau of General Services, visits a few schools each year to investigate reports of mold or air pollution. He said most reports of a “sick school” are not actually caused by excessive mold.

“We’ve had a couple over the past seven years,” he said. “You’ve got to have three things: water or moisture; food, which can be food itself, (or) it can be dirt or building materials; and then, of course, you’ve got to have the right temperature.

“It’s basically a combination of those three items, and it’s got to be the right combination for mold to form.”

Mare said he heard about air quality complaints at Biddeford High on Monday but had not been asked to test the air or help investigate. He responds only when a superintendent asks him, he said.

 

– Staff Writer John Richardson contributed to this story.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]