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Ongoing air quality concerns at Bonners Ferry High School addressed last year

 
September 5, 2022

By Mike Weland

From the March, 2020, report, asterisks show where significant leaks had occurred
in the high school HVAC system over years before most antifreeze was
eliminated from the system.
In February 2020, several current and former employees and community members at Bonners Ferry High School drafted a three-page letter to then-principal LaGina Brown and superintendent Jan Bayer outlining concerns regarding air quality at the high school, saying they had been expressing concerns since at least 2013 of a potentially toxic workplace. "For a variety of reasons," they wrote, "we now believe an unhealthy condition or conditions exist at the High School which are having severe and ongoing health impacts on staff, and most likely, students."

The issues stemmed from leaks in the high school heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, or HVAC, which affected certain rooms and areas with noticeable foul smells that lleft people exposed with migraine headaches, burning and itchy eyes, nasal congestion and sneezing, weariness, vertigo, dizziness and other symptoms.

On March 12, 2020, Dr. Harry Beaulieu, a certified industrial hygienist with Industrial Hygiene Resources, conducted an assessment, issuing his findings in a report to the school district March 26, 2020, finding at least three heat exchange fluid leak events that had released propylene glycol, the antifreeze used in the system, each repaired and cleaned up after they'd occurred. The leaks were in the gym, the library and the corridor in front of the office.

He also found the abnormal presence of noit only propylene glycol in the library and counselor's office, but also much larger amounts of hazardous diethyline glycol vapor various aldehyde vapors that were abnormal, reactive and irritating in the air, likely from thermal degradation of the propylene glycol used in the heat exchange units.

In addition to testing, Dr. Beaulieu spoke with around a dozen staff members, some recently retired, who t6old him of numerous leaks that had occurred, of glycol dripping down in corridors or rooms. Staff and students were kept out of the areas affected until cleaned up, but that some leaks left a pink mist that lingered for weeks.

A second assessment was conducted by Mike Cooper, Industrial Hygiene Resources, on April 23, 2020, after a thorough inspection of the HVAC system was conducted and repairs made. In a report issued June 10, 2020. Of the test results from the first inspection, he wrote, "as a whole, these results are considered abnormal in a school setting but below occupational exposure limits where such limits exist."

Of the new air quality results, he wrote, "although detected, the levels of glycols, volatile organic compounds and aldehydes in the high school were all in the parts-per-billion range ... these results would not be expected to cause adverse health effects in the normal population. the results are reasonably consistent with IHR sampling from March of 2020.

He recommended, "If the HVAC system can be efficiently designed to not freeze in winter, the removal of the propylene glycol from the hydronics system would eliminate the most likely source of propylene glycol from the building. Additionally, removal of the propylene glycol from the hydronics system would eliminate the risk of possible airborne propylene glycol or other chemical exposure from the hydronics system in event of leaks in the water/glycol filled system."

Though the levels were low, the district followed through on the recommendations. According to Bayer, the glycol was drained from the system June 21, 2020, and the whole system was flushed. Over the course of the summer, the heating system was reconfigured, so the gym system is separate. In addition carpet was replaced with tile the following summer.

New heat exchange equipment was installed. All of the circulating propylene glycol in the classrooms, library, auditorium, music room and administrative offices was removed and flushed from the lines. The hydronic system lines for these areas were then filled with water. The only remaining propylene glycol fluid provides heat exchange for the gymnasium due to the overhead lines which require a lower freezing point than water during winter.

After spending over $100,000 to resolve the issues, a third assessment was conducted and a report issued September 8, 2021.

"After the HVAC renovations were complete, the indoor air quality was retested in July 2021," the report reads. "The results show that the indoor air quality improved since the last sampling event in April 2020. Indoor air quality is expected to improve even further due to the removal of propylene glycol from the majority of the hydronic system; i.e., no more propylene glycol leaks will occur in occupied classroom or administrative spaces."

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9B.News
Mike Weland, Publisher
mike@9b.news  

6931 Main St.
P.O. Box 1625
Bonners Ferry, ID 83805
(208) 295-1016

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