Arlington Citizen-Journal

‘Dirty sock syndrome’: Culprit in Arlington school illnesses could be mild HVAC mold

Nichols Junior High was scrubbed and disinfected over the Thanksgiving holiday in response to an outbreak of illnesses among students and staff. An independent lab has identified possible causes.
Nichols Junior High was scrubbed and disinfected over the Thanksgiving holiday in response to an outbreak of illnesses among students and staff. An independent lab has identified possible causes. Star-Telegram archives

A testing lab says a nonpathogenic mold found in Nichols Junior High School’s heating and air-conditioning units could be a cause of the allergy-like illnesses among many students and staff members that were first reported in September.

No elevated levels of carbon monoxide or other pollutants that would pose a health risk were detected during a study of the school’s indoor air quality by Armstrong Forensic Laboratory of Arlington, whose final report was presented to the Nichols staff Monday.

Testing did detect the odor of “dirty sock syndrome,” which “is not reported to be a threat to health, but is unpleasant and may lead to a general feeling of discomfort or malaise,” the report said.

Armstrong found HVAC coils dirtied with bacterial and fungal growth, which can cause the odor, most often when the systems are switched from heating to cooling. The report recommended cleaning of HVAC coils and other measures to combat the odors.

“We have already been working with a mechanical engineering firm to get started on the HVAC testing and balancing,” which addresses a recommendation to draw more outside fresh air into the system to dilute recycled air, said district spokeswoman Leslie Johnston.

Nichols was briefly evacuated Sept. 22 after many students and staff members experienced symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea and tingling or numbness in the extremities.

Armstrong said indoor air-quality issues are suspected “when people feel ill while inside the building and the symptoms go away shortly after leaving the building.”

Some school employees and parents complained that the district downplayed the acuteness of the symptoms, the numbers of those sickened, and the numbers of those who continued to experience symptoms during the weeks and months after the initial event.

Nichols Junior High School is slated for several upgrades funded by past bond elections.

After several tests following the outbreak failed to identify a culprit, Nichols underwent a thorough scrubbing and disinfecting over the Thanksgiving holiday week.

Johnston said the district’s plant services staff has been addressing other recommendations and has already cleaned air-unit coils. She cited the report, which said Armstrong reinspected the cleaned coils on some units and found that the work “appears to have been successful,” but noted the problems “may return if the systems are operated in the same manner without adjustment.”

The campus is slated for several upgrades funded by past bond elections. Nichols will get “a number of life-cycle and deficiency upgrades throughout our campus,” Johnston said. Those will include repairing the roof and replacing HVAC units, plumbing fixtures, carpets, doors, fire alarms, the stage curtain, site lighting and landscaping.

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

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