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More students treated following air quality issues at East Lee high

By Staff | May 24, 2008

School was almost out Thursday when 42 students and staffers at East Lee County High School broke out in rashes and complained of symptoms systematic of a chemical contamination in two adjoining classrooms.

On Friday school had only just begun when about 12 or so more began complaining of sickness.

Students began to show signs of sickness at 9 a.m., according to Lee County School Board Spokesperson Joe Donzelli. By about 11 a.m. Friday the school had again been dismissed by school bus or by the usual ways students used to get home for the holiday weekend, he said.

“You always err on the side of caution, especially when you deal with kids,” Donzelli said. The school contacted parents by telephone to alert them of the situation, he said.

On both days, the school was evacuated and Hazmat crews decontaminated most of the students suffering symptoms on-scene. Those students were transported by LeeTran buses on Thursday and by ambulance on Friday. The ones who weren’t decontaminated at the school also were those who came in their own cars and underwent decontamination at the Cape Coral Hospital, officials said. Five students on Thursday and one on Friday drove themselves to the hospital, they said.

Hospital spokesperson Karen Krieger said on Friday seven students were taken by ambulance to be checked out as was one girl who drove herself. All were female tenth-graders ages 16 and 17.

All of the students on Thursday and Friday were released in good health to their parents.

Krieger said none of the students affected Friday were the same as those affected during Thursday incident.

Though some may question the school’s decision to reopen Friday given the outcome, Donzelli said East Lee County High School was checked thoroughly by Hazmat crews, and cleared back into the hands of school board officials.

“(Thursday), after all of the Hazmat testing was done, nothing came back that would indicate any residual irritant,” Donzelli said.

Additionally, an indoor air quality test was done from 6 to 11 p.m. Thursday which did not yield an findings of contaminants, he said.

After Friday’s dismissal, the school was tested by Hazmat crews, which again detected no evidence of a chemical irritant.

No staff members were affected on Friday, including Donzelli and Superintendent James Browder, who were inspecting the school without protective gear and suffered no symptoms, Donzelli said.

“No adults complained of any symptoms whatsoever,” said Donzelli of Friday’s incident. “If something is in the air, it’s not going to affect just the kids; a chemical’s not going to discriminate.”

Donzelli said this was an inconsistency between Friday and Thursday, as on Thursday those affected were students and staff within a very specific area.

Another difference between the two incidents noted by Donzelli was the list of symptoms suffered by those on Friday as compared with those expressed Thursday.

“(Thursday), there was evidence of an irritant with very specific symptoms. (Friday) the medical officer said there were very general symptoms; nothing that mirrored the symptoms of yesterday,” said Donzelli.

Still, officials were using an “abundance of caution,” he said.

“We are doing anything and everything that the experts say that we can do,” he said.

According to Donzelli, anything and everything includes extensive indoor air quality testing at the school, smoke tests to search for leaks in the air systems ducts, using air scrubbers and testing every air conditioning filter in the school for contaminates.

“We’ll cover every nook and cranny,” he said.

Donzelli said the rooms affected on Thursday are connected through air vents that are separate from the rest of the school, including the rooms where students were said to have fallen ill on Friday.

He expects the school to reopen on Tuesday, provided the testing yields results that are not indicative of any problems.

School Board member Bob Chilmonik was at the hospital Friday to console parents about the situation.

“The scary part is, when you start taking students and transporting them, it opens the door for all these sorts of traffic accidents and things,” said Chilmonik. “That was a major concern for me since this happened two days in a row.”

The cause of the symptoms on both days was still undetermined at press time and rumors that pepper spray was used as a senior prank are just that, rumors, Donzelli said.

As for what would happen to a student found to be responsible for the multiple-day mishap, he said, “We’re not worrying about that right now.”

More pressing is the safety of the school for students and staff, he said.

Hospital officials said those who are suffering symptoms which they believe may be associated with the alleged chemical contamination at East Lee County High School who do not wish to visit the hospital can decontaminate themselves by showering and washing their clothes with soap and water separate from other clothes.