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'Stressful' week at WR High

By Brenda Sexton, The Courier-Herald

White River High School students, staff, parents and administrators are still spinning from the dizzying effects of ventilation problems in campus buildings that sent some students to the hospital last week.

In a letter that went home to parents Friday, Principal Keith Banks referred to the week as "unusual" and "stressful."

"Throughout the week we have had reports of students and staff detecting unidentified odors and feeling dizzy, nauseous and having headaches," Banks wrote.

The series of events started May 17 when several students and a staff member reported feeling ill. The fire department was called and buildings were evacuated. Those feeling ill were taken to local hospitals and released. According to a letter from Superintendent Jay Hambly, dated May 18, four of the nine had a slightly elevated level of carbon monoxide in their blood.

According to Assistant Superintendent Roger Marlow, fire department equipment detected nothing unusual.

In Hambly's letter, the source of the carbon monoxide was attributed to the auto shop, where cars were running inside while the exhaust fans were not functioning at the appropriate level. Open shop doors allowed the fumes to leak into other areas of the school.

The following day, May 18, students were evacuated from the gymnasiums after reporting a "gas smell." The source was deemed to be an HVAC system not running properly.

Thursday's air-quality problems, Marlow said, were the result of a miscommunication between district officials and a contractor. Contractors were asked not to work on the systems until after school. Contractors, apparently understood that to mean certain parts of the system, and started work in some areas.

Administrators met with staff members Thursday to explain the situations.

Marlow said in addition to local fire departments, the district has brought in an air-quality agency to monitor the situation and is also seeking help from the University of Washington Environmental Services. Carbon monoxide detectors, he said, are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the school. In all instances, nothing unusual has been detected.

In Banks' letter, he assured parents the district is working to address the situation and that students are not in danger.

"We feel the building is safe for our students and staff," Banks said.

But some parents aren't buying it.

"I just don't understand why they still have the kids in school if they have all these problems," said Maureen Smith, whose daughter was one of those who visited the hospital Thursday and stayed home sick Friday with a stomachache and headache. She has two students at the high school and, like some others, feels the district rushed into the new school. They are wondering if students have been exposed to dangers since September.

"I just want some answers," said parent Lisa Hoffmann, whose son was in a physical education class when the gymnasium was evacuated. "I want to know what's going on."

She said there was a lack of communication between the school and parents during the week-long incidents. She heard about the May 17 problem from her children, one of whom complained about headaches and dizziness.

"No note, no explanation," Hoffmann said. "The school has to know kids will talk to their parents.

"Our kids are sitting there and they're in danger. The school's not even a year old and to be having these problems."

District officials were not denying at certain times there's an odor, Marlow said, but no one can detect a problem, and students are not measuring levels that would indicate poisoning.

"They have not found anything out-of-range or abnormal," Marlow said.

In a letter to school nurse nancy Willner provided by the school district, Dr. Larry O'Bryant of Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, where some of the students were taken, noted the normal range for carbon monoxide levels in people in non-smoking environments is up to about 2 percent. Levels in newborns may run as high as 10 to 12 percent and smokers or those in a smoking environment can be as high as 5 to 10 percent.

He continued to say that symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning (headache, lethargy) do not generally occur until levels reach above 10 percent. Severe symptoms, including unconsciousness, are seen at levels from 20 to 50 percent and death is usually seen at 40 to 60 percent levels if not treated immediately.

He noted, based on these figures, "it is unlikely that significant symptoms would occur at levels below 6 percent."

Enumclaw Community Hospital saw several high-school aged patients through the entire week. Jeannie Matthews, chief nurse officer at the hospital, said she cannot say if they were White River students, but in about nine of those cases there were complaints of headache, abdominal pain and nausea similar to "gas exposure." She said there was no evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning and lab analysis results were normal. None of the patients were hospitalized.

Some parents are still skeptical.

"I don't think it's a done deal," Hoffman said.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com

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