Gases emanating from septic wells, mould, rotting student’s lunches and poor maintenance have been found to be the main culprits behind the environmental health problems found at the Lester Vaughan School, a Barbados TODAY investigation has found.
A preliminary air quality assessment, among other findings and email correspondence between the principal and staff, obtained by Barbados TODAY suggest the school has just begun to wage war on mounting environmental problems.
Toxic nitrogen dioxide and flammable methane gases are venting from drainage wells at the school, a preliminary report said. But the quantities of gas were not given, and the gases are naturally occurring substances creating by decaying matter in the wells.
“Drainage wells with metal covers are venting nitrogen dioxide and methane gas. These gases are produced naturally by decaying vegetable matter. They will be sealed with heavy grease, which prevents them from venting,” said a preliminary report on air quality tests carried out on October 6.
The findings were contained in one of several updates on the environmental problems issued by Principal Tanya Harding.
But the gases are only part of a picture of a “dirty” and poorly maintained school, amid pigeon and cat faeces, fiberglass dropping from classroom ceilings, mould on furniture and ceilings, and worms in the playing field’s sandpit, according to the report and regular updates from the principal.
“The school is dirty. Basically put, we got the school 20 years ago, and we did not maintain or clean the school in twenty years,” said a source close to the development who spoke to Barbados TODAY on condition of anonymity.
But the sources comments are borne out by the findings of the environmental assessment: Lester Vaughn School has not been properly maintained over the years as dirt, dust and decay piled up ever since its doors swung open in 1999.
“Several desks had decaying food. Form Teachers are asked to do regular checks of desk pockets,” the update said. “Damaged notice boards could affect those with allergies. These will be removed from classrooms. Fine dust in the corners of the room could affect those who are allergic to dust mites. This is being rectified with the scrubbing of floors.”
Ironically, the school absorbed the St Leonard’s Girl’s School, closed over a raft of environmental problems nearly two decades ago.
“Half of the staff compliment is on sick leave. You even have one teacher who was not there the entire term,” the source said.
“You have a lot of respiratory issues at the school. You have people who come to school and in an hour or two cannot talk.
“People who are on sick leave and come back and within an hour or two they have to go again. We even had a member of staff who was bleeding out repeatedly but because she has a [medical] condition [one assumes] that is what causes it.
“So, it cannot be that you are fine when you are on vacation and from the time you step on the compound you have headaches, you might find that persons are gasping for air at some time, they are coughing,” the source told Barbados TODAY.
Teachers vented their concerns on Tuesday, the source suggested, adding that “everybody seems to want it hush hush”.
The health impacts had also begun to be experienced by students, who contacted their parents to collect them after they fell ill with headaches, the source added.
When contacted, Principal Harding said that she was awaiting the details of the environmental report to determine the next step for the school, which has been closed for the remainder of the week to undergo industrial cleaning.
“I cannot say too much and I am actually waiting for an environmental report which is going to be sent to the Chief Education Officer first. So, I am waiting for that to be sent and that would determine what happens next. So we are waiting for an environmental report and that is all I can say as I have not seen the report myself,” she told Barbados TODAY.
Nitrogen oxide, with its pungent, acrid odour, can affect breathing, inflaming airways in healthy people, and can trigger asthma attacks. As it creates ozone, irritating eyes and worsening breathing issues.
Although non-toxic, the more naturally occurring methane gas is highly flammable and can cause asphyxiation in high concentrations as it displaces oxygen.
But there was no indication in the preliminary findings of high levels of the naturally-produced gases or imminent danger facing students or staff.
The source also said the environmental issues had led to thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Staff morale is at an all-time low,” the source said, adding that they are extremely frustrated with the way in which the matter is being handled by the school’s administration.
However, the correspondence, spread over several weeks of the Michaelmas term indicate a principal who kept staff abreast of developments, issued findings of the environmental assessment, and the semblance of an action plan to tackle myriad problems.
But it appears that some staff members are prepared not to return to the school should the planned environment cleaning fail come Monday, the source said.
“Those . . . who cannot take it anymore [say they] have no intention of working under those conditions because we also have to think of the children who [they] are teaching, yes, but [teachers’] families as well.”