SALISBURY — With the downtown central office project stalled, many school system employees will continue to work out of the office on Long Street.
Officials with the Rowan-Salisbury School System have repeatedly raised safety concerns about the old building.
Now, two former employees say working there made them sick.
Sarah Hensley said she began having trouble breathing in early June 2010, after working at the Long Street office since 1999 as director of elementary education.
When Hensley was spending less time out in the schools and more time in the office, she began having asthma-like attacks that left her scared and gasping.
“When it hits you, you just can’t catch your air. You can’t breathe,” Hensley said. “It’s just an awful feeling.”
Her primary care doctor, Dr. Willard Thompson, referred her to an allergy and immunology specialist, Dr. John Welch at Rowan Diagnostic Clinic.
“When I came to him, it had gotten so bad that my lung capacity was about 35 percent,” Hensley said.
After various tests, Welch said she had a “reactive airway,” and her coughing was likely triggered by a mold allergy. He wrote a note excusing her from work for two weeks.
The school system brought in a company called SanAir Technologies to test the air quality in the building, and the results showed some areas that had elevated levels of certain molds. Hensley was allergic to one of the two found in her office.
When she came back to work, her symptoms continued to worsen, so Welch wrote another note recommending that she stay out of the office.
“Her environment needs to be cleaned appropriately before she can return to work,” Welch wrote.
Hensley said she wrote a letter to administrators and attached the doctors’ notes, asking that something be done.
The school system then hired Restoration Plus to help clean the building and its air. Another third-party test, conducted by EMSL Analytical after the cleaning was done, showed that the mold had gone back down to low levels.
Hensley came back to work after seeing these results, but by the spring of 2011, her symptoms began to return. That June, she went back to the doctor, who told her she was getting worse.
In the spring of 2012, Hensley decided to retire.
“Some people can say I could’ve gotten it out in the air or different places,” she said. “I believe, and my doctors believe, that it came from that building.”
Gene Miller, then assistant superintendent of operations for the school system, said he knows Hensley has had breathing problems because of mold, but the Long Street building may not have been the cause.
“I am sorry she’s having these issues, but I don’t know for sure what caused them,” he said.
Miller, who retired at the end of September, said he does notice himself sneezing more often while he’s at the building. But the mold levels there were not found to be a health threat, he said.
He said the company that did the testing told officials that nothing was in the building that couldn’t be found outside. “And the levels were in the acceptable range,” Miller said.
In late June 2010, after the first air quality test results came back, Miller sent an email out to staff with advice about how to keep the mold levels down, including removing food and indoor plants. He wrote that most of the problem seemed to be located around the windows where it gets damp and dusty, so those areas would be cleaned thoroughly.
“This is the best we can do with what we have,” he said.
Miller said last month that he hasn’t heard any other complaints that people have experienced health issues because of working in that building. Sometimes people will make comments that they are sneezing or coughing more than usual, he said.
“When we hear that kind of stuff, we do testing, and we do cleanup if there’s anything to clean,” Miller said. “If they see something suspicious or if they’re having issues, they need to come forward and let us know, and certainly they need to have a doctor check them. That’s what we’ve always told everybody to do.”
Hensley said she filed a worker’s compensation claim, but it was denied, because she couldn’t prove that her illness was work-related. But she’s not the only one that believes the Long Street office caused breathing problems.
Henry Kluttz, 63, former principal of Carson High School, said he worked in the building for six months in 2006, while the new school was getting ready to open. He was 56 years old at the time.
“I was there in 2006 from January through June, and by March of that year, I started having a lot of breathing issues and shortness of breath,” Kluttz said.
Kluttz said he has allergies and has taken shots every week for 30 years to control them. But he had never had problems breathing like that until then.
Kluttz said a specialist and his family doctor both concluded that Kluttz had allergy-induced asthma. He still uses an inhaler to control it.
“I may be susceptible to those issues because of my allergies – I don’t know,” he said. “But I believe it all was triggered when I worked there.”
Kluttz said he knows not everyone reacts the same way, but he’s still concerned about the other school system employees.”
“I would not work there again,” he said. “We need something other than Long Street for the men and women that work there.”
Dr. Robert Quinn, an ear, nose and throat physician in Salisbury, said he usually gives patients with mold allergies two main pieces of advice.
“First of all, make sure that the airborne mold spores outside are not what’s causing the problem,” Quinn said.
When windy weather kicks up dead leaves, it causes a lot of mold spores to enter the air, he said. That means that allergic reactions can be triggered by just walking outside.
It also means that buildings in the area, unless they’re tightly sealed, have higher levels of mold spores when a lot of cold fronts and storms have moved through.
Secondly, Quinn recommends antihistamine medications like Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec, along with a dose of Zantac or Pepcid.
“If taken together, that boosts the antihistamine’s effectiveness,” he said.
Quinn said about 80 percent of people have no reaction to mold spores, but for those who are allergic, it can be a chronic problem.
Hensley said her family doesn’t have a history of breathing issues or mold allergies, and she had never experienced them herself until 2010.
She has started to feel better in the past couple of years, but she still sometimes feels short of breath, and her voice is a little hoarse. She has been using asthma medication and breathing treatments to get her symptoms under control.
“My main goal right now is to get well,” she said. “It’s been hard to get back to feeling like myself.”