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The fall of 2005 marked a fresh start for Jackie Pynaert, a veteran teacher beginning a new eighth-grade teaching assignment at Queen Elizabeth II primary school in Petrolia, Ont. Her homeroom was P1, a portable classroom across the hall from two friendly teachers who had a long history with the school.

Still, it wasn't long before Ms. Pynaert, then 42, found herself having a tough time in class.

"I started having flu-like symptoms, chills for two months, and I couldn't shake them," she said. "I was coughing, wheezing, we're talking coughing until you nearly bring up a lung. I had rashes all over my face." The students told her that the teacher who had the room before her coughed the same way.

Puzzled, Ms. Pynaert began to dig into building maintenance records. The school where she worked, a one-storey brick building in the Lambton Kent District School Board, had gone through several additions during its 56 years, including one that resulted in a cluster of eight temporary classrooms (one of which was Ms. Pynaert's) being tacked onto the school's west wing to accommodate an influx of students.

Ms. Pynaert was horrified by what she learned from the records. As far back as 2002, teachers were reporting "squishy" floors and rotting wood in the portables. In 2004, teachers were complaining about headaches and constant colds. The last teacher in her room went to the emergency room twice with symptoms similar to her own: breathing difficulties, chronic fatigue, headaches, nausea. He also had painful sores in his nose.

When class was out, his symptoms would fade or disappear.

By December of 2005, Ms. Pynaert's lips were swelling when she entered her classroom, pockets of liquid had begun pouching beneath her eyes and a white, filmy fungus was growing on her face. She also coughed "until I sprayed urine. I was losing bladder control. My bladder muscle was giving out." She couldn't shake the belief that something in the classrooms was making people sick.

Ms. Pynaert is not the first teacher to develop such a hunch. In nearly every province in recent years, educators have raised alarms about strange illnesses they think are caused by mould.

Health Canada says mould is "toxic," and no amount of it indoors is safe, but there are no laws or policies that require school boards to search out hidden moulds. And because the boards fall under provincial jurisdiction - and the provinces have no official policies on what specific tests should be done by boards to ensure schools are mould-free - how mould complaints are handled by school boards can vary considerably.

Many whistle-blowers have been able to muster enough public pressure - often with the help of intense local media coverage - to force school administrators to deal with the problem.

However, no group of mould-battling teachers has succeeded in creating a strong enough precedent for subsequent sufferers to draw on. Often, when teachers' symptoms disappear, so does the mould issue from public discourse - until the next round of unknowing teachers is struck.

The battle over mould in Lambton Kent, which covers a sprawling rural area with 67 schools, 54 of which house elementary teachers and students, began brewing more than five years ago, when several teachers from across the district independently began making health complaints.

Some had itchy red rashes, constant congestion, phlegm buildup, ear fungus, bloody noses or hives. For others, there was unexplained facial swelling, skin lumps, growths, coughing attacks, bowel problems, stomachaches, searing headaches and chronic fatigue.

"Everybody had to stay drugged to get through work," said Johanne Tranquille, a French teacher who had been working in portable classrooms since 1990 - across the hall from Ms. Pynaert - and coughed constantly, broke out in red facial rashes and suffered bad sinus problems.

Ms. Tranquille said she would drag herself to work in spite of her symptoms out of fears that "nobody would help the kids." But it was tough. "I told my mom one time, 'I think I'll have to quit teaching. I'm too sick.' "

Laurel Liddicoat-Newton, an elementary teacher at Lansdowne Public School in Sarnia, had to have an egg-sized growth, which her doctor said "bloomed" because of something in her environment, surgically removed from her neck. Brimming with frustration at unresolved health problems in her school, she joined a health and safety committee in hopes of spurring a fix.

That's when Ms. Liddicoat-Newton learned that her colleagues and their students were suffering too. From 2002 to 2005, records show, Lansdowne teachers filed more than a dozen official complaints requesting air-quality tests in the school's portables. After an expert tester was finally contracted by the school board to deal with the portables, no less than 84 square metres of mouldy and water-damaged materials were cut out of the structure.

However, upon their return to the classrooms - after air sampling deemed the rooms acceptable - the teachers still felt ill. In the ensuing months, a repetitive cycle began in which mould was found, removed and found again.

Amid that cycle, Ms. Liddicoat-Newton found a "garden of mould" beneath a portable that had supposedly been cleaned.

"It was black earth, covered with orange and white and yellow and green, like cauliflowers, for as far as you can see," she said. Exasperated, she ultimately led a work refusal in March, 2007.

"I'm not a person who stands out and fights. I will avoid conflict at all costs," she said. "I've always been a fixer. I don't like confrontation and arguing, especially in public. But I want it to be safe for the kids. Those little kids are developing immune systems. And they're getting sick."

One of those was Ethan Dickhout, a seven-year-old at a Chatham public school who is literally scarred from reactions he had in the classroom, his mother said.

"He started to get the spots all over his body. First it was on his forehead. Then it was on his stomach, his legs, all over his arms," said Billie Jo Robertson. "It has caused him to have three or four bald spots on the back of his head where hair will not grow back."

When the rash was at its worst, a manager at a Chatham fast-food outlet asked Mrs. Robertson not to bring Ethan into the restaurant. "He asked me to leave because it was making the other customers on edge," she said.

Since Ethan switched schools last fall, his problems have cleared up.

Teachers began turning to their union, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, for help. At group meetings held to air concerns, Ms. Pynaert was the first to talk about her health problems, which have forced the 45-year-old to take an extended leave from work.

Soon, more teachers began to speak out.

Jodi Mandeno, a Grade 2 teacher from Chatham, said she was taking eight allergy pills a day so that she could go to school without her body breaking out in hives. The 32-year-old had logged official health and safety complaints about her classroom, but also changed her diet, laundry detergents and body wash and even traded in her brand-new car - out of concern she was allergic to the seat coverings - to try stopping the hives. Only on March Break, when she spent a week away from her school, did the huge welts disappear.

Afterward, she began documenting her students' symptoms too. By her count, 14 out of 19 students in the class were suffering, mainly from headaches, red rashes and respiratory problems. One youngster had such bad migraines that his mother was often called to take him home.

"When kids are sitting there scratching and they can't concentrate on their little test, it just breaks your heart," she said.

TEACHERS SILENCED

With the onslaught of complaints showing no signs of abating - by fall, 2007, Ministry of Labour inspectors had made more than 30 visits to district schools and issued stop-work orders for 16 rooms - the school board agreed to start cleaning up the problems in elementary buildings. Their pledge, which will cost about $1-million a year, was a welcome surprise for teachers. But it came with a condition: The plan would go forward only if the outspoken teachers responsible for drawing attention to mould problems agreed to silence their complaints. Grudgingly, the teachers, via their union, agreed to the deal.

The Globe and Mail's interviews - nearly two dozen teachers and parents from across the school district talked about the ailments they link to time spent in district schools - all took place before the gag order went into effect.

In the months since then, Om Malik, principal of Environmental Consulting and Occupational Health Management Inc., based in Mississauga, was contracted to inspect all of Lambton Kent's elementary schools. He uncovered mould and indoor air-quality problems in most of the nine buildings he has seen, as well as repeated signs of shoddy upkeep: rodent excrement, leaky windows and clogged air exchanges.

For the schools he has seen so far, the inspector has recommended a broad slate of often-expensive remedies. With four dozen more schools left to be inspected, worries persist that the schools will not be fixed.

It's a concern that school board officials have tried to strike down.

Gayle Stucke, chair of the Lambton Kent school board, said all the classrooms will be inspected, as per the agreement with the union. But she also said that "the idea of a mould-free building is not realistic."

"Mould in buildings has been an issue forever. … When you have mould, it's cleared up and six months later it shows again."

Friends of Ms. Pynaert said she has begun considering a second career out of worries that returning to her classroom would make her sick.

Ms. Stucke, who would not discuss the specifics of any teacher's case with The Globe, rejected the possibility, saying: "There's no medical evidence that in fact those symptoms are caused by mould. ... There's no scientific connection."

Mould has been present in the environment since biblical days, but the science around it remains patchy and controversial. And though the term "toxic mould" has become a mainstay in popular vernacular, there is still fierce debate in the medical community over whether it is the sole culprit for illnesses it appears to cause.

"We all agree that there are a number of health issues. We don't understand them all," said Dr. David Miller, an Ottawa-based expert who has helped to develop federal guidelines.

One problem is the sheer number of mould species - there are hundreds of thousands.

Another is that "the constellation of symptoms people can potentially experience are quite varied," according to Karen Bartlett, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia's School of Environmental Health who has been studying mould issues since the early 1990s.

"This is the crux of why these things are so difficult to sort out. The medical community has no problem with the concept that people in mould-infested places can experience a wide variety of respiratory symptoms," she said. "There is no consensus in what happens for other kinds of symptoms. We don't have a nice clean test that can be applied that gives us a result."

There is one controversial American doctor who says he does.

Ritchie C. Shoemaker is a Maryland-based family physician who began delving into bacteria and mould medicine in the mid-1990s, when some of his long-time patients - swimmers and fishermen - began complaining of memory problems, fatigue, coughs, chronic pains, diarrhea and sensitivity to bright light.

Dr. Shoemaker ultimately connected their illnesses to an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a toxin-forming micro-organism responsible for large fish kills in North Carolina and Maryland. His work with those patients led him to another network that was complaining of similar symptoms. However, theirs were due to exposures to mould and water-damaged buildings.

Dr. Shoemaker has since developed a reputation as something of a mould-science cowboy; he theorizes that people who fall ill after contact with mould are actually having reactions to the toxins contained in the fungus's microscopic spores. Among some individuals, particularly those who he says are genetically vulnerable, biotoxins can cause immune-system impairment or inflammation.

"Mould exposure initiates a series of illness generators, hurting immune-system responses and altering blood flow to many small blood vessels," Dr. Shoemaker wrote in his 2005 book, Mold Warriors: Fighting America's Hidden Health Threat. He said the effects of biotoxin exposures are often mistaken as influenza, chronic fatigue syndrome or other common ailments.

He claims that he is able to diagnose biotoxin-related illnesses by analyzing a patient's medical history, blood tests, physical exam and performance on a visual contrast sensitivity test, which a colleague developed. That test measures whether toxins have disrupted neural function.

Although his work has been peer-reviewed, he acknowledges that his theories remain controversial.

"Indoor growth of toxin-forming moulds make people sick in ways most physicians don't yet fully understand," he wrote in his book. "Proving that mould causes common illnesses that are rarely recognized by physicians has been a challenge."

Schools are particularly susceptible to mould - the problems in Lambton Kent have been seen in nearly every province, as well as across the United States.

In San Diego, a former schoolteacher named Susan Brinchman has set up the Center for School Mold Help, a website that serves as a continent-wide clearing house for information about mould science, policy and media coverage. Ms. Brinchman, who taught for 25 years before being transferred to a mouldy school where she became too sick to work, said her website gets 120,000 hits per year, with an endless stream of requests from teachers looking for help in the mould "war."

WHY SCHOOLS?

Because schools are often built with flat roofs, they are vulnerable to water pooling and leakages. In this era of stretched budgets, expensive maintenance jobs - such as adequately repairing water damage - are often deferred in favour of spending in the classroom. Schools in the past have tried to fix water seepage by permanently sealing windows, which has the effect of trapping moisture in the schools (which helps mould to grow), said Mr. Malik, of the firm now inspecting the Lambton Kent schools.

Poor ventilation is another common factor abetting mould growth in schools, he said.

In Newfoundland last year, severe mould problems were discovered in at least eight schools, seven of which were closed. Since last September, mould and water problems have been discovered in at least two Ontario school districts aside from Lambton Kent: Ottawa-Carleton and nearby Renfrew.

Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's Education Minister, said last fall that problems in Lambton Kent schools got out of hand. "This particular situation is one that we will rely on for some pretty serious lessons," she said.

Still, individual teachers, including Ms. Pynaert and Ms. Liddicoat-Newton, who appealed to the minister for help when Labour Ministry processes seemed unable to stimulate an end to the mould, say she never responded.

Asked why she did not intervene to help with the issue, Ms. Wynne said: "There isn't a direct way for me to be involved."

However, lessons drawn from other provinces suggest that there could be.

Canada's most notorious school-mould problem broke out in Nova Scotia in the late 1990s; more than a dozen schools were closed. In one case, several million dollars was spent trying to remediate a school before it was finally torn down; in another, contractors were forced to peel back the building materials to the rafters to get at all of the mould.

The problem was so bad the Education Minister created a dedicated team of staffers to travel around the province helping school boards tackle the mould - and the politics the fungus seems to carry with it.

"My biggest job was to show that I was impartial and that I believed that if you said the child was sick, the child was sick," said Gerald Muise, who headed the department's team. "It was critical to have the province involved. ...

"This health and safety business is used and abused," he said, adding: "We had some of the best medical people around. All they could agree on what not to agree on."

Also born out of that era was the Halifax-based environmental advocacy group called Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment.

The group, now a registered charity, was formed in the early 1990s. "I personally went through two years of being blasted in my community," said the group's head, Karen Robinson. "Teachers would stop me in stairwells and whisper to me, 'Please don't stop, Mrs. Robinson.' "

By 1997, however, after seeking out national experts on mould and indoor air-quality problems, members of the group ended up working frequently as advisers to the Education Department and the following year were asked to work with the province on the design of new "healthy" schools.

Ms. Robinson even received a commendation in the provincial legislature for her efforts.

"We started by pledging that our way of operating was going to be a respectful one, that we'd get more with honey than vinegar," she said. "We worked with solid information … [and pledged]to be respectful of any of those who were harming our children. No one really wants to harm children," she said.

In most cases, Ms. Robinson said, the events that led to the discovery of serious mould problems unfolded in a similar manner to those in Lambton Kent, where sick teachers, at first, hesitated to speak out.

"I hazard to say that it's happening right across North America," she said. "It's amazing how much people can be suffering … and they're afraid to speak up.

"They're afraid there will be repercussions and things will get worse. Teachers can be harmed in insidious ways. They can quietly find a little glass ceiling placed over them, or they can be shipped off to a school in the far reaches of the school board, or you miss out on your principalship. You become a troublemaker when you speak out against your employer."

MENTAL HEALTH QUESTIONED

For Ms. Pynaert, the Lambton teacher who had been the most outspoken on the mould issue, the full price tag of the ordeal has yet to be tallied.

When she last met with The Globe, her health was still waning despite being out of the classroom for months.

She was hoarse-voiced, tired easily and was suffering gastrointestinal issues. Also waning was her reputation in the community. Her outspokenness, penchant for taking after-hours pictures of mouldy schoolrooms to add to her cache of files and to challenge the school board - particularly in the pages of local newspapers - worried other teachers and ostracized her from colleagues.

Even her own sister, also a schoolteacher, had grown wary of being in public with her.

When the school board began to take a hard line against her allegations, Ms. Pynaert said, she was "made out to be a liar and a nut." Her mental health was publicly questioned.

"In the beginning, we thought we would tell the board and they would save us. They would say, 'This is horrible, and the children are in there and we've got to get them out,'" Ms. Pynaert said.

"What should have been a surefire health and safety issue has become a political nightmare," she said.

Because of the agreement with the school board brokered by her union, Ms. Pynaert was not able to describe her current situation. Friends said she has not been able to return to work since leaving in 2006 and faces a growing risk of losing her job if she continues to refuse to go back to her classroom without being able to prove conclusively that something in the room is causing her illness.

So far, Ms. Pynaert has gone to extreme lengths to try to validate her claims. Along with some of the other Lambton Kent teachers, she paid about $600 in April, 2007, to send blood samples for testing by a California-based mould-allergy specialist. All of them said they had tested positive for antibodies related to mould exposures.

Ms. Pynaert's results were so alarming that she spent several more thousand dollars to take the test results to Dr. Shoemaker for his analysis.

In a long report on his diagnosis, the doctor wrote that he believes her illness is without a doubt due to mould exposures at work.

"The syndrome that affects Ms. Pynaert is a biotoxin-associated illness that has been given many names, including Sick Building Syndrome," he wrote. "To a reasonable degree of medical certainty, exposure to the interior environment of the water-damaged building is the sole cause of her illness."

Water damage, he said in an interview, is a precursor to mould.

"Ms. Pynaert is no different from my thousands of cases of mould illness: She is primed for subsequent illness solely caused by exposure to the indoor air environment in her workplace. … She will become ill following re-exposure to any other environment with presence of biotoxin-producing organisms growing in buildings with water damage."

Dr. Shoemaker went on to say that out of the 4,400 cases he has seen, Ms. Pynaert's is "one of the most flagrant examples of disregard of an employer's responsibility to provide a safe workplace I have evaluated.

"What this means is that because of the illness Ms. Pynaert acquired from her workplace, her life will be forever changed."

Jessica Leeder is an investigative reporter for The Globe and Mail

 

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