The Department of Defense schools division and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort are taking seriously health concerns raised by staff members and plan to complete an evaluation of indoor air quality and other conditions at two Laurel Bay schools by the end of the month, officials said Wednesday.
"If there is a concern, we are going to get to the bottom of it," said Col. John R. Snider, commanding officer of the air station.
Snider, whose children attend Laurel Bay schools, said he is glad the defense department's Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools quickly responded to concerns and already has finished initial testing of air quality.
"I have a vested interest in the kids that go to that school because their parents wear this uniform," he said, indicating his own uniform.
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Staff members at both Galer Elementary and Bolden Elementary/Middle schools approached their union in early February about health concerns, according to Cassandra White, the union president for both schools. Their concerns were passed to school and Department of Defense administrators.
About 80 staff members work in the two schools.
Gray Hurt, who taught for 21 years at Bolden, said several people who have worked at the two schools have been diagnosed with serious illnesses. She was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, in December.
She said there is no way she can attribute her disease to conditions at the schools but thinks studying whether conditions could have been a factor is important.
"Everybody who works in those buildings is concerned," she said. "I just wish they could get to the bottom of it."
Charles Yahres, principal at Bolden Elementary/Middle School, said there was no pattern to the health concerns raised.
"There wasn't a specific focus as much as general health issues," he said. "That's why this testing will be so broad in scope."
An initial assessment Feb. 17-18 indicated nothing unhealthy about the air inside either school,said Russell Barnhart a facilities engineer for the defense department's schools division.
But that agency has agreed to work with an Army Corps unit from Norfolk, Va., to conduct more tests.
The quality of drinking water and soil near the building will be assessed and radon levels will be tested, Barnhart said. He said the buildings will be checked for mold, mildew and asbestos, and HVAC equipment will be evaluated. An epidemiologist will interview staff members about their health history and study factors that could affect health of staff and students.
Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, a spokesman for the air station, said officials hope to begin presenting test results to employees in late April or early May. Some results might not be available by then, he said.
Sherin Florio, who spent 25 years teaching at Galer and Bolden, retired in 2008 after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She said too many people at the school have been diagnosed with serious diseases for her to believe it is a coincidence.
"The people that have already been diagnosed, you can't go back in time and take away whatever they might have been diagnosed with," she said. "But maybe through some sort of study that might go public, others can be saved from these types of diseases."
Neither union officials nor a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense schools division would say how many teachers have been diagnosed with illnesses in recent years.
Representatives from the air station and the Department of Defense schools division met Wednesday with faculty and staff members to discuss the health concerns and provide information about the ongoing investigation. The meeting was not open to the media. White said she is confident air station and Department of Defense school officials are doing all they can to alleviate teachers' concerns.
"The union is really pleased with the response we have gotten from everyone concerned," she said.
Bolden Elementary/Middle School was built in 1961, according to Cindy Gibson, a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense schools division. Additions were built in 1963, 2001 and 2002, she said.
Gibson said the school, which serves about 400 students, is slated to be replaced in 2014, according to a military construction schedule.
Galer Elementary School was built in 1958 and expanded in 2002, she said. It serves about 250 students and is not scheduled to be replaced, Gibson said.