AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Jennifer Matos didn’t think much of it when her 4-year-old daughter, Sapphira, started complaining about a sore throat and upset stomach. She put her to bed and woke up the next morning to start getting her ready for school when she picked up on some unusual symptoms.
“Her body was contracting, everything looked abnormal,” said Matos. “I noticed that her stomach was heaving it was getting really big as she was breathing.”
She took a quick video with her smartphone to show the doctor, and then rushed her 4-year-old daughter to the emergency room at Dell Children’s hospital.
Doctors told Matos that Sapphira was having as asthma attack. According to Matos, it was a first for her youngest daughter.
Nurses put a breathing mask over Sapphira’s nose and mouth and started breathing treatments right away.
“I asked the doctor, 'what kind of things can cause asthma?' And one of those things was mold,” said Matos.
Dr. Stephen Pont, a pediatrician at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas says mold spores don't affect everyone. It depends on your sensitivity, and age plays a big factor.
“With younger children their airways are much smaller so it takes less inflammation to cause problems in a younger child than a full grown adult,” said Dr. Pont.
The only new place Sapphira had been was school. Two weeks earlier she started in the pre-kindergarten program at Oak Springs Elementary in East Austin. Matos texted Sapphira’s teacher to tell him what happened, and asked if the school could test for mold. The answer was yes.
Testing for mold in schools
Angela Kizee, a licensed mold assessment consultant with AISD, started with a walk-thru of the classroom.
“We just take a real good look at the entire area to kinda see what may be visually there,” said Kizee while walking around the room with a flashlight. Next, she used her air quality calculator to check the temperature and relative humidity.
“We like to see the relative humidity at least below 60,” said Kizee.In Sapphira’s classroom it was higher, which meant conditions were good for mold to grow. For the final step, Kizee used a mobile pump to collect an air sample to send off to a lab in Houston. It’s a five minute test that captures mold spores in the room.
When the results were in, the mold count in Sapphira's classroom came back unacceptable with a high mold level. The test also revealed the type of spores: Aspergillus and Penicillium. They are two of the most common types of mold caused by high humidity and condensation.
AISD's housekeeping supervisor, Linda Coronado, was in charge of the clean-up and said she could see the mold growing on several surfaces in the classroom.
“We saw it on the bookshelves,” said Coronado pointing to the wooden shelves in the middle of the classroom full of toys and games. “On these wooden blocks here…also the wood part right around the bulletin boards.”
Her team came in with a chemical called "mold eliminator" and wiped everything down. A few tweaks were made to the air conditioning unit as well due to the high humidity, and then it was time to test again. Lab results showed the mold count was lower, but still unacceptable.
The cleaning crew came back for a second round.This time, they pulled everything out of the classroom and wiped it down from top to bottom which took two days.
“Each little block or piece of puzzle had to be submerged into the liquid of mold eliminator,” said Coronado.
“Each little block or piece of puzzle had to be submerged into the liquid of mold eliminator”
She said it was the biggest mold removal she’s been a part of after thirty years with the district. When the district tested the room for a third time, the mold count was finally down to zero.
“Third time was a charm, [we were] extremely pleased,” said Louis Zachary, AISD Maintenance Director.
But Sapphira has not been back to Oak Springs Elementary since her trip to the emergency room. About a week and half later, the asthma was gone, and she doesn't need to use an inhaler anymore.
“My gut told me not to send her back to school,” said Matos who doesn’t want the symptoms to come back, and is worried about the rest of the campus. “I mostly worry about my daughter, but I am worried about the other kids too.”
KXAN learned the district also tested the classroom next door which came back fine, but the school computer lab had to be thoroughly cleaned where there was more visible mold.
Matos wants to know why the entire school wasn’t tested. AISD says they only test the specific area of concern.
“When we receive a complaint then we test that space,” said Zachary.
In this case, it was the room where Sapphira spent the most time. Even though it’s not something they would normally do, the district says if Matos comes to them and asks for testing to be done in every room and every hallway they would do it.
“That wouldn't be a problem to give her peace of mind,” said Zachary.
For now, Sapphira goes to work with her dad at the YMCA and is in their daycare program. The AISD housekeeping director says now that they’ve attacked the problem in the pre-k classroom, campus custodians are now cleaning it at a higher level so the mold does not return.
KXAN tags along with Mold Inspection Sciences
Which Austin ISD campuses had mold when tested?
What to do if you have a mold concern at your child’s school
Austin ISD and surrounding districts say the best way to address a mold concern is with the school principal. KXAN reached out to several Central Texas districts to see if they do regular air quality testing, and the answer was no. Like AISD, local districts say the testing is complaint driven – either someone visibly spots mold or reports health problems.
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