You may recall that I addressed you on the matter from the Parliament on Wednesday November 21, 2012. Teachers and students had complained of a variety of symptoms of illness which they had suspected were resulting from a possible dysfunction of the labs, the drainage system, the spillage of chemicals, or the existence of radioactive materials within the labs or the school. An earlier investigation had ruled out a number of these suspicions.
On November 21 when I addressed you, CARIRI – Caribbean Industrial Research Institute – a company out of Trinidad recommended by one of our local universities, had a team of professionals on the ground at the BHS to carry out investigations into possible causes of reported symptoms. Later that same evening, the CARIRI team led by a Mr. Maurice Alexander, an Environmental Engineer by profession, debriefed a group of persons representing the school, the Ministry and the Parents.
At the debriefing, the investigators reported that they were able to conclude that there was no chemical contamination at the school. All gases tested for existed well within the established limits for occupational safety. In other words, with respect to gases and chemicals, there was nothing out of the ordinary detected.
There were two other aspects of CARIRI’s investigation that could not be reported on immediately since the samples collected required analysis that could not be done on the spot. These were (i) investigation for fine particulate dust and (ii) investigation for microbes or germs, such as bacteria and fungi. The written report from CARIRI was received last week Thursday, January 3, and concludes that there is no particulate dust at the school. The possibility of this special kind of dust existing in the air was very concerning to teachers since they were told that this specific kind of dust can bypass the defense mechanisms of the lungs and cause harmful effects. Thankfully, this has been completely ruled out.
The analysis of the outdoor samples and regular classroom samples for germs reveals that the germ count outdoors and in the sample of classrooms is low. This is a good result because it tells that the general environment at the school is a safe and healthy one. It was found however, that in the labs that had been closed (and, unoccupied) for some time, there was a high level of accumulation of dust and a high level of germs (bacteria and fungi). In other words, the air quality in these labs is very poor. You may recall that as a result of the suspicion of chemical contamination, the labs have been closed for a long time and they remain unoccupied even at this very moment. The report further concludes that the major groups of bacteria identified in the labs pose no harm to healthy individuals but are largely opportunistic germs.
Additionally, the report highlights that in the case of the Integrated Science Lab on the eastern campus of the school, “wooden materials were not allowed to dry properly, thus providing the conditions for mould to grow and sporulate.” You may recall here from my previous address that this lab was flushed by the Fire Department upon the request of the school because there were suspicions of chemical contamination. It may well be the case that after such an intervention, the lab on the eastern campus was not completely dry before use and this could have led to conditions for the growth of mould .
Over the Christmas vacation period and before the receipt of the report from CARIRI, a significant amount of work was done at the BHS. The sewage tanks were cleaned; sewage ducts were checked; the Science Labs were cleared of all materials including books, equipment and chemicals; fumigation and other termite treatment were done in the following areas: the Home Economic Centre and adjoining rooms on the Western Campus, the staff room on the Western campus, the Visual Arts Lab near the staff room, the Technical Drawing Centre, Wood Work shop and the Metal Work Shop. All of these areas received termite treatment.
Damaged materials were removed from some of the above areas as needed. New cupboards and shelves, new sinks and new appliances were installed in some of these areas. Some additional repairs are still being undertaken at this time.
New tools and equipment for Agriculture, Electrical Installation, Wood Work and Metal Work have been placed on order and should arrive shortly. Some of these materials will be shared with other secondary schools.
Ministry Officials met with the Principal and Deputy Principal on Friday, January 4, 2013, to examine and discuss the report. The recommendations to address the outstanding issues are several but can be categorized as follows:
(i) Professionally clean the areas of concern before re-occupancy,
(ii) Ensure proper cleaning and maintenance of all spaces on an ongoing basis. That is, maintain good house-keeping practices
(iii) Improve operational standards in the labs taking account of air quality and good lab practices
The recommendations of the report will be shared with all concerned so that the entire stakeholder community can, not only monitor the progress of their implementation, but assist in their implementation as well, where possible.
Since receiving the report from CARIRI on Thursday, as per the recommendations of the report, professional cleaning and treatment of the Labs has started. A general cleaning of the classrooms and the school compound is being undertaken. Other minor works are being done.
The Chief Medical Officer, having examined the report, has reported:
1.Essentially, there is no radio-nuclear threat, chemical threat or biological threat to life or limb at the BHS. Notwithstanding, an accumulation of dust was observed and its potential to harbour fungal growth was highlighted.
2. The symptoms – irritation of eyes and respiratory passages, and constitutional effects e.g. nausea – reported by students and staff may be consistent with direct exposure to the environmental conditions mentioned above.
3. Furthermore, the school is over 60 years old – refurbishment and retro-fitting are indicated. The report contains certain germane recommendations.
3. The Ministry of Education has a credible report from a reputable agency. The issues at BHS are non-life-threatening and rectifiable. Corrective actions are proceeding.
When the Principal and her deputy met with the Ministry officials to review the report last Friday, it was agreed that once the cleaning of the school as recommended was satisfactory, regular school attendance should commence. It was also agreed that satisfactory progress on other aspects of the recommendations, such as the renovation of labs, was a condition for building confidence and trust going forward.
Accordingly, it is also worthy of note, that a contract has been signed off for the installation of a new AC system in the school’s auditorium. The scope of works for the complete renovation of the Chemistry and Physics labs and adjacent bathroom facilities has been completed and work is to commence shortly upon the award of contracts. The Ministry has attempted to address all known areas of potential concern at the BHS, from dealing with the sewage system, the AC system, professional cleaning and termite treatment, to retrofitting learning spaces and providing new tools and equipment for a number of occupational areas.
However, on my visit to the BHS this morning, I witnessed a team of plumbers from the Public Works Department discover a serious problem with the plumbing at one of the teachers’ bathrooms. I am satisfied that we have therefore discovered an area of very legitimate concern to teachers and students at the BHS. The plumbing team is working on this problem assiduously to ensure its satisfactory resolution by later this week.
As a consequence of today’s discovery, all bathrooms at the school are being thoroughly checked, and work on them will be prioritized.
Accordingly, students and parents are advised that there will be no school for 1st to 4th formers for the rest of the week ending Friday January 11. I also wish to assure the public that the school will do all within its power to make up for the lost academic time once classes re-commence.
I am confident that very shortly, the students and teachers at the BHS will have a much cleaner and a more comfortable environment in which to learn and work. I therefore solicit your understanding and cooperation at this time as we seek to move beyond this difficult period for the students, their parents and teachers at the BHS.
Thanks for your understanding and kind cooperation.