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Northport school's air concerns go back to early 2000s, records show

Northport Middle School in Northport on Dec. 27,

Northport Middle School in Northport on Dec. 27, 2014. Credit: Ian J. Stark

Air quality concerns at Northport Middle School in the early 2000s led to more than 60 teacher health and safety reports that complained about odors similar to those raised this year and in 2011, documents obtained by Newsday show.

The school’s K wing, which houses classrooms and several science labs, has been closed since the spring when strong odors described as a gas or fuel smell led officials to report petroleum-based materials were being stored in a 6,800-square-foot warehouse below that part of the school.

Parents are asking the district to provide details on the history of air quality issues at the middle school and how each past incident has been resolved. Many said they plan to attend a school board meeting on Wednesday to again raise the issue with officials.

“You cannot keep putting a Band-Aid on this,” parent Nicole Mulholland said at a Sept. 28 school board meeting. “It will not go away.”

Northport-East Northport School District Superintendent Robert Banzer declined requests for an interview. A public relations agency for the district said in a statement officials have “identified, analyzed and remediated” air quality concerns and will “continue to take action to ensure a safe learning environment.”

In the reports from the early 2000s, teachers described gas, chemical and mold smells throughout the school.

  • “There is an odor in [room] K-74 that makes me sick to my stomach and gives me a bad headache,” a teacher wrote in Nov. 3, 2000, a health and safety report. “Since I have been working in this building, my face gets very red and I feel as if I’m going to pass out. It happens at least once a day.”
  • “Suddenly there was an extremely pungent smell of gas,” another teacher wrote in a Nov. 14, 2000, report. “The students commented on the smell and ... I immediately got a headache from the odor.”
  • “I suddenly felt weak and dizzy,” another teacher wrote in a December 2000 report. A staff member “told me I was very flushed and told me to see the nurse. I did immediately. ... I had trouble focusing and comprehending what she was saying.”

District officials brought in an expert to the Sept. 28 board meeting who offered reasons to avoid doing a long-term study to track potential health effects in teachers and students who may have been exposed to chemicals.

“Doing a study that would be able to conclude anything with very good certainty would be very, very, very hard,” said Dr. Lauren Zajac, an environmental science physician at Mount Sinai Hospital, who the district offered as an expert at the meeting.

District officials in April hired Ronkonkoma-based Enviroscience Consultants Inc., to conduct initial air-quality testing. The tests detected 24 volatile organic compounds — found in many commonly used products such as nail polish or gasoline — in a classroom, including four at levels above the state Department of Health’s air quality guidelines, according to reports on the district’s website.

The New York Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau had no records of complaints for Northport Middle School for the past decade and does not keep records for longer than 10 years.

In April, immediately after the discovery of products containing the chemicals and three days before Enviroscience’s air quality testing, school officials removed the materials — including a chemical used with diesel fuel, flooring and roofing adhesives, wastewater containers and paint, according to minutes of meetings from April to June among school administrators, teachers and the teachers’ union.

Some of the materials had been stored and transferred in the warehouse below the K-wing for “over 10 years,” according to the meeting minutes. The school had also been parking a vehicle beneath the classrooms, according to a June 8 letter that Banzer sent to parents.

“I taught in K-75 for 14 years, during which time I have smelled what I have described as a gas/home heating oil smell on numerous occasions,” science teacher Scott Shutka said at a Sept. 14 board meeting. He said he filed a health and safety report in 2011 because “the fuel/gas smell was so strong that it made me nauseous and gave me a headache.”

He said the smells have “waxed and waned” over the years, and that school officials notified him in 2011 that odors were “the result of a plumbing issue which had been fixed.”

A Jan. 16, 2001, memo from district officials to the Northport Middle School science department cites school and health department officials finding what they believed was the source of odors: a limestone pit used to catch contaminants and water runoff from faucets.

“The limestone pit located in classroom G-51 would appear to have been the primary source of odors and noxious fumes,” the memo reported. “The tank was remediated and sealed . . . hopefully, these problems will no longer occur.”

The Suffolk County Department of Health and Safety in 2002 considered the issue resolved after the school sealed off a cesspool believed to be the source of odors, documents show. A new cesspool was installed, conforming with the agency’s recommendations.

Parents said they want the district to provide a full accounting of past problems with air quality at the middle school.

“This is not a recent problem in this building, and every time it’s come up there’s been some cleanup and then we move on and move forward,” parent Denise Schwartz said at the Sept. 28 meeting. “There needs to be some responsibility and accountability to the staff and students who have been exposed.”

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