Air quality test contradicts parent’s claim of formaldehyde in Beaufort Co. classrooms

Students will return to River Ridge Academy’s eight-classroom mobile unit Monday, after a Beaufort County School District-sanctioned air quality test contradicted a parent’s claims that she had detected formaldehyde “at least 200 times above the acceptable limit” on a meter she had secretly brought to an open house in September.

Students with classes in the mobile unit were moved to the school’s main building on Monday, after district superintendent Frank Rodriguez and the board of education received a Sept. 27 email from an account with the display name Mary Smith.

“We can’t say with any certainty” that this is a parent at River Ridge, district spokesman Jim Foster said Friday evening. “But even if this is someone who chose to make their concerns known anonymously, we’re not going to ignore questions about student safety.”

In the email, obtained through a public records request by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, Smith expressed “great concern” for the health of students in the mobile unit.

“Last year and during the summer others expressed their concern to the district regarding the awful smell in those classrooms,” Smith wrote. “... Children were getting headaches, congestion and sore throats in that building. Children’s backpacks were permeated with the smell as well as the contents of their bags, papers and clothing.”

Parents were notified of the issue Sunday, and students were moved out of the unit, which contains eight classrooms, a bathroom and a hallway, according to district chief of operations Robert Oetting.

Foster said Friday that Smith had been notified by the district when the decision was made to move students out of the unit, and that she responded and was “very appreciative.”

For the past week, the classes have met in the library and elective classrooms, and elective teachers have moved through the school with carts.

Smith said that her device “maxed out” readings for parts per million in the air of formaldehyde (2 ppm) and total volatile organic compounds (10 ppm). OSHA guidelines label consistent readings of more than 0.5 ppm of formaldehyde as concerning.

It is unclear what device Smith used.

According to Foster, air quality firm Terracon, Inc. took four separate readings in the building that all found negligible levels of formaldehyde far lower than OSHA guidelines.

Foster said the district did have concerns about Smith’s reports of student illness in the mobile units, and checked with the school nurse to see if the fourth grade, whose five classrooms are all in the mobile unit, reported higher rates of sore throats, headaches and nosebleeds — all symptoms of formaldehyde exposure — than other grade levels not in mobile units.

The fourth-graders had lower reports of those symptoms than other grades.

While Oetting said reports of formaldehyde are new, there were complaints of a “musty smell” in the unit last August that stemmed from standing water beneath the temporary structure, as well as a leaky roof vent. Both issues have been fixed and are unrelated to the possible formaldehyde, he said.

The mobile unit was installed at River Ridge one year ago to address overcrowding and house the school’s six fourth-grade classes and two lower-level Montessori classes, according to previous reporting by the Packet and Gazette.

In 2018-19, the school had 1,236 students, 5 percent over its 1,173-student capacity. The K-8 school was slated for expansion in the district’s 2016 and 2018 school bond referendums, both of which failed.

In the meantime, some parents have taken up Smith’s report as rallying cry to promote November’s $345 million school bond referendum, which would address overcrowding in Bluffton schools, among other construction and security projects.

Without expansion, the district projects that River Ridge’s population could swell to more than 1,500 students in the next five years, putting it at 132 percent capacity.

“It doesn’t take more than a second of walking into those portable classrooms to know there is a problem, clearly one that has been being ignored at the sake of our children’s health and well-being,” Smith concluded in her email.

“I truly hope to see swift and immediate action to remedy this problem and provide these children an environment that is not dangerous to their health.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.