Marissa Lowthert is a parent of two children enrolled at Miller-Driscoll Elementary School. She is one of a several M-D parents who have raised concerns with Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) issues at the school. She has been very visible, speaking at Board of Education, Board of Selectmen, M-D Building Commission and M-D PTA meetings.

She spoke with GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve on Dec. 7, 2013 about her concerns and what she has found out in research about the school’s air quality. 

Q: What is your role in all of this?

Marissa Lowthert:  The way that this started was simply that my son is in the basement for the second year in a row. Another parent raised concerns about being in the basement and the air quality down there. I asked to see the reports. Had the reports been given to me and been fine, that would have been the end of the story. But for five, six weeks, I asked on Aug. 22, I didn’t get them until Oct. 1 and it took repeated requests. That whole time they were saying to me, ‘We’re in full compliance.’ But I’m an auditor, and my training is, ‘Ok, then show me the reports.’ They wouldn’t give them to me, and I read the state law that said all these reports have to be kept in the office, for anyone to see. Until I cited the state law in an email and pushed to get it, it wasn’t until Oct. 1 that I got the reports, and when I got the reports, I felt misled. I was told for weeks that we had been in compliance, and it turns out that we were in violation of the law. We were two years past due on radon [testing] and there was no evidence, they didn’t provide me with documentation of being in compliance with the IAQ [Tools For Schools] program. As a parent, that’s a concern for me.

On Oct. 1, they also gave me a mold report that is disturbing. I’m not an IAQ specialist, and it has taken weeks of me reading and re-reading and talking to experts. I saw words I couldn’t even pronounce. They’ve had to explain different strains of mold, and what different molds mean. Doing research to figure out the radon issue.

There’s a bigger umbrella of issues, but the most black-and-white issue, what’s in the public eye, and the easiest issue is radon.

Q: What is the issue with radon and Miller-Driscoll?

ML:  Bottom line, in August, I asked for air quality reports. I was not given the reports. For weeks I was told we were in full compliance. Five weeks later when I got the reports, it was confirmed we were nowhere near compliance. When I asked for the most basic laws of which we were in violation of, the radon laws, I was told the laws do not apply to us. I had to actively pursue getting tests done, research the law very carefully to determine that the laws did in fact apply to Wilton, convince the administration that they did apply and get the tests done. Once the tests were done, they did not follow any protocols. Upon notifying them that they failed to follow the protocols—number one, having the windows closed—it was denial, then a slow, slow recognition, but a refusal to work with me to corroborate if my photos matched up with their survey of teachers. This has been a frustrating process for me, because radon is a concern. I don’t know if we do have a problem, I don’t know if we don’t have a problem. But I do know that of all the problems Wilton has with IAQ, it is probably the easiest and least expensive problem, and if we can’t get this right, how can we trust the administration and the testing company to handle potentially bigger problems.

Q:  What is the concern about radon and why was it important to test 100 percent of the school, if they were only required by law to test 10 percent?

ML:  I requested, and other parents echoed my concern that they not do 10 percent testing, particularly at M-D given that whole sewer  project, and the rock blasting, because those kinds of actions… Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that is in the ground. Disrupting soil and rock can potentially release radon, which gets sucked up in the cracks of the building and the foundation, and that’s how it gets in. The law says if you do renovation IN the building you have to do 100 percent testing. This was renovation outside in very close proximity to the building so we should do 100 percent testing.

We also should do 100 percent testing because we’re in the process of looking at the renovation of M-D, and if we don’t have a solid baseline as to what the current levels are, we could be making really bad decisions about what the renovation should be. It’s a lot easier and less expensive to know you have a radon problem and plan, because the state requires if you’re doing renovation you use radon-resistant materials. If you don’t think you have a problem, and you do a renovation and you don’t use radon-resistant materials, and you are required by law after a renovation to do a radon test, if we found out at that point we had a problem we’d have to spend a heck of a lot of money to mitigate at that point.

Why are we looking at a potentially $40 million project and not knowing exactly what issues we face?

I was very happy with the decision to do 100 percent testing.

Q: What about testing of the other three schools?

ML: It bothers me, if you look at the 10 percent testing that they did, in the 10 percent in the other three schools, they always tested the administration office. As a parent, I am concerned that in the other schools, for the 10 percent testing, they decided to prioritize testing of administrative offices, rather than children’s classes. There are some studies that suggest, although it may not be proven, that young children in particular are more at risk for radon issues. Although the CT Dept. of Health has stated that they are in some ways more concerned about the teachers, with regard to radon, because some teachers may spend their entire careers in one classroom, and they get to school before the children, they stay after the children leave, while the children go to specials they may be in the classrooms. While the children are constantly leaving their classroom throughout the day, the teachers are often in the classrooms constantly and for many years. As I am incredibly concerned as a parent for my children, for all the children, but I am equally concerned about the teachers. The whole radon issue is both for the students as well as the teachers. I’m surprised the teachers haven’t been engaged in this or notified either.

Q: Why did you take the route to go to the PTA with your concerns?

ML: I went to the PTA council and present my concerns about radon. This was before the State Department [of Health]. rejected our tests. I had asked for help. I will admit, this is a monumental task for one person to be taking on. I aksed for help because I truly need help. This is not an issue that impacts just my two children; it also impacts the 900 children at M-D and the 4,000 children at Wilton Public Schools.

I went to the PTA council hoping to engage and get their support and ask for their help, and instead I walked away with more work. They asked me to create timelines, to produce documentation, to go to the Board of Education, they gave me a list of things to do. My impression was that they were sort of not receptive to my concerns unless I had demonstrated that I had exhausted all other avenues.

As a parent, as a mother, as a member of this community, I find myself in an awkward position. I don’t know that we have a radon problem, and I’m not saying we do. What I am saying is, according to the state law, and the policies of the Wilton Public Schools Board of Education, the students, teachers and staff are entitled and required to adequate IAQ testing and radon testing. They deserve it. And they didn’t get it. The community didn’t get it, and as taxpayers we paid for it. I am concerned that this is viewed as “causing trouble,” when I am purely concerned with the health and safety of my children, my friends’ children, and many people who work in the district I consider friends. This is not trying to create trouble, this is trying to insure the health and safety of children and others.

I’m not suggesting the schools get shut down, and I’m not suggesting that we have that kind of significant problem. But you have schools in Westport and Fairfield and Greenwich that all got shut down for high carbon dioxide levels, for mold, for concealing problems from parents for years, only to find out that children and teachers and staff health had been impacted and suffering. And they did nothing for years. I’m not sure that that’s the case in Wilton, but I do know that there is evidence and documentation that teachers have complained, and it certainly was not known to me and not known to anyone in my social circles.”

Q: You’ve attended a lot of meetings and done a lot of research. Have you asked to be on the M-D building committee?

ML: There is no parent on the M-D building committee and that’s been a concern of mine. You’re talking about a major renovation of a school and yet you don’t have a parent there to give feedback. I have experience with the Kindergarten, first and second grade programs, I also have some experience with the pre-K service program. So I’m familiar with all four grade levels, as well as being a parent who has been in there for all kinds of volunteer opportunities, having a background in accounting and finance, so I can do the analysis on the budgets, and also a background in commercial real estate. I’m surprised they have been unreceptive to my offer to participate. And I think I’ve shown lots of enthusiasm and passion for it.

Lowthert has collected information from reports she requested from school and district administrators. She submitted requests for any and all teacher complaints, which if settled, are available to the public to view. She was given two such reports by the administration for M-D but said she doesn’t know if that’s the full extent. She also requested and received an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) report about air quality at M-D.

Q: What did you find in the reports?

ML: In 2006 the HVAC systems were not performing correctly, and there were high carbon dioxide levels. It’s usually an indication that your HVAC systems were not working properly. Carbon dioxide is what we’re breathing out; it means that the systems were not bringing in enough fresh air. It can cause fatigue, and cause problems with learning. Your brain is not getting enough oxygen.

We had high carbon dioxide in 2006, we had high carbon dioxide in 2008, the 2012 limited microbial test said they did a carbon dioxide test but they didn’t. After reading this I asked for my children’s rooms to be tested. They only tested one and they found high carbon dioxide levels.

Carbon dioxide levels should be under 700; it was over 1,000. It was a quick fix—it was Oct. 17, they had levels of almost 1,200, the next day they adjusted it, and they were back down to 600. It’s just an adjustment that they need to make. They didn’t have to bring in outside consultants, or buy anything. They just had to adjust the system.

You had a problem in 2006, 2008, you found out in October that you had a problem in one classroom with carbon dioxide, and only because I asked.

The bottom line is there have been recommendations made and they haven’t followed up on them.

The conversation in public has only been about radon. This is like peeling back the layers of an onion.  I can give you a two minute elevator speech on radon. But there are things that I have learned that will boggle your mind as to how this has gone on for so long.

It’s to be sure, number one for the health and safety of the teachers, number one. But number two, because we’re about to spend a boatload of money on this renovation. How can you be making any decisions about how to renovate the school if you don’t have a baseline for how the school currently is? How can you make that decision about putting in a new HVAC system if you don’t know what the problems are?

The question is, why doesn’t anybody know it. I’m an auditor. I have the training to ask questions and to look at the reports. But most people would have given up on this a long time ago, because this has been an incredible amount of time and effort and work.

Editor’s note:  Lowthert sent an email to the Board of Education on Dec. 17 asking them to investigate the carbon dioxide issue at Miller-Dricoll. She and the administrators disagree on the acceptable elevated levels of carbon dioxide (1000 ppm vs. 5000 ppm). Her email asked for the BoE to schedule a BOE Special Meeting for open discussion of air quality and to “require the administration to adopt a single upper limit of 1000 ppm at all WPS schools but also establish an interim CO2 target at MD based upon the NIOSH ‘no complaint’ level of 600 ppm.”

She has also provided reports from October which showed CO2 readings in a ground floor classroom elevated above 3,000 ppm.

Q:  Do you have questions about credibility?

ML:  They misled me. They said we were in full compliance, we weren’t. Why say that?

Q:  Are you saying that we may just be as out-of-compliance on other potential air quality issues in the school?

ML:  Absolutely, and potentially more so.

Q:  Where radon is the simplest thing…

ML:  Even that wasn’t done correctly.

Lowthert outlined the numerous errors made when radon testing was originally conducted in November at Miller-Driscoll, including lapses in communication with parents about testing, open windows, poor instructions for teachers, no students present, and others.

In addition to describing the number of times she requested Miller-Driscoll air quality reports from school officials, she also outlined the number of times she tried to contact the school and administrators to alert them of the errors, and asserted that there were discrepancies in the information the school has provided to her.

Q:  You’re frustrated?

ML:  This has been weeks now of me contacting numerous officials. For me as a parent I feel I’m in an awkward position of wanting to protect my children and the other children and the staff, and not wanting to cause a panic. I don’t know that we have a problem, but I don’t know that we don’t have a problem, and all I’ve ever wanted is to have the data and the facts, and to know one way or another. I think everyone deserves to have a properly administered test to know do we or don’t we have a problem.

Part of what bothers me, is I alerted the administration that there was a problem and the testing company that there were problems. Neither pulled back the report—it was published on a district website. It was the CT Dep. Of Public Health that pulled the report back. If they’re doing this on radon, how can we trust them on the bigger, broader issues?

They will retest in January. I have significant concerns about them using ATC. I am very happy that they are going to retest, but I think there needs to be an investigation into what exactly happened. They weren’t forthcoming with me, and they didn’t appear to be forthcoming with the testing company.

Q:  What do you want to happen?

ML:  I have volunteered to be on the Tools For Schools committee for months. I am passionate about this, I am committed to fixing this problem, and they are not calling on me to facilitate. I applied. I sent them an email asking how many other parents have applied. To be a part of the TFS you have to commit to a 5-hour training by the CT Dept. of Health. I have all this knowledge that I think would be incredibly useful, and I’ve looked through the protocols.