After school nurse sent report, was city’s response to breathing illnesses enough?

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 2:15 pm

Original story from 06/14/18; updated with audio from St. Louis on the Air segment on 06/15/18.

A school nurse told St. Louis health officials in February about students under the nurse’s care hospitalized by asthma attacks and teachers forced to stay home with respiratory illnesses, but neither the school district nor the health department warned those afflicted about a possible connection in their ailments.

It was not until a St. Louis Public Radio investigation published last month that some parents and staff of the Gateway school complex said they first learned the respiratory illnesses may have been caused by dirt and dust kicked up by nearby demolition work funded and overseen by the city.

Economic development and public health officials in the city said they did everything necessary to alleviate concerns.

For several months over the winter, a city contractor piled rubble near the school’s front door. Over the same time period, students and staff complained of sudden health and breathing issues, according to more than a dozen interviews with parents and staff. Only a chain-link fence separates more than a thousand children from the piles of rubble.

Since the original story, St. Louis Public Radio has obtained documents from elected officials, including a report a school nurse gave to the health department, and details of the city’s response to the school’s calls for help.

The nurse’s documentation of a notable increase in respiratory illnesses, missed days of school and multiple trips to the emergency room by students with asthma contradicts what city and school district officials said while reporting the initial story, which was that nothing was out of the ordinary.

The Department of Health and the school nurse “have given a clean bill of health,” Otis Williams, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, told St. Louis Public Radio last month. “And I think even the school nurse there indicated that it was not out of the norm.”

SLDC is overseeing preparation work for the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s headquarters that will be built in the St. Louis Place neighborhood, a few blocks north of Gateway school.

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Not knowing why

Cenya Davis started coming home from school at Gateway Elementary wheezing and coughing in early December.

“Everytime, like, I swallowed, my throat just started feeling — I don’t know what it feels like, but it just hurt,” the 8-year-old recalled.

Davis’ teacher sent her to get glasses of water. Her mother, Nia Butler, blamed the cold weather during recess. She bundled her daughter up tighter before sending her off to school.

A hat and scarf weren’t enough to protect Davis. In December, shortly after her birthday, the cough got bad enough that her mother took her to the hospital. There, she was given an inhaler to relieve the symptoms.

Davis has been back in the hospital two more times and was diagnosed with asthma on the last visit. Butler said she only learned about the possible cause from reading the news.

“It was shocking, because I didn’t know anything about it,” she said.

The inhaler is now a regular part of Davis’ daily routine. She sat at the kitchen table slurping a Go-Gurt when an alarm on her mother’s phone went off. Davis went to fetch her inhaler. After taking several puffs, her mother gave her a hug and then reset the timer. They’d do it again in another six hours.

No letter home

Last fall, SLDC consented for its demolition contractor, Kolb Grading, to store concrete and brick rubble from the removal of homes and streets in the NGA's footprint on the long-vacant land where the Pruitt-Igoe housing towers once stood. The property is owned by Northside developer Paul McKee.

Starting in mid-October, Kolb Grading ripped out trees and brush on Pruitt-Igoe, and, in their place, piled concrete slabs and other rubble just yards from the elementary school’s front door.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources used several mobile air monitors to measure dust in the air at the NGA site for compliance with federal standards. As the debris was moved to the south side of Cass Avenue and deposited on the former Pruitt-Igoe site, SLDC only asked Kolb to visually monitor for dust control.

That work continued until late winter and only halted when complaints from parents and school staff made it to SLDC and the health department.

The parents who made those complaints also wanted what they suspected — that the dirt in the air could be contributing to the spike in breathing problems — to be shared with the rest of the school community.

“I am really at a loss to understand why the district didn’t feel that was important to get out to parents,” said Megan Betts, a member of Gateway’s small Parent-Teacher Organization.

One of Betts’ daughters who attends Gateway has asthma. Cecelia, 9, has never needed the inhaler her mother sent her off to school with each fall until this school year. Betts said her daughter went to the school nurse at least twice to use it.

Finally fed up with the lack of information coming from the district, Betts printed flyers and handed them out to parents picking their children up from school in late May.

“If I would have done things differently, I would have taken action sooner,” she said.

A district spokeswoman declined to comment on why letters weren’t sent home and directed questions to SLDC. 

The city’s response

The city is standing by its response to the complaints.

“I think we did what we were supposed to do,” St. Louis health director Melba Moore said in an interview. “We responded as quickly as possible to get the information back to the schools.”

Health department employees inspected the site in February and tried to compare reported cases of breathing problems at Gateway with nearby schools. An epidemiological review was inconclusive, and Moore said she could not definitively say if the debris piles caused the spike in breathing troubles.

It was the right decision to not send out a letter to parents about the health concerns, Moore said, in part because of privacy laws.

“I will air on the caution of being very careful in that because you don’t want to get parents over excited, worried, that kind of thing,” she said. “I think the approach that we took in working with the school, getting the information back out there and sharing that was due diligence, what we needed to do.”

‘An open landfill’

St. Louis Public Radio’s reporting prompted St. Louis aldermen to devote part of a recent hearing on developer Paul McKee’s dealings with the city to the health concerns at Gateway.

Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, on Wednesday questioned SLDC’s Williams about why a city contractor was able to make a deal with McKee to store debris next to the school.

“Why are we allowing an open landfill, of sorts, next to a city school?” Cohn asked.

Williams interjected that it’s not a landfill but a temporary storage site. The concrete and brick has been tested and is clean of contamination, Williams said, and it won’t be crushed down and moved until the school is empty for the summer.

A public school would not be built next to the scrapyards and industrial storage facilities along the city’s waterfront, answered Cohn.

“I wouldn’t want my kids going to school next to something that’s like that,” he said.

In the interview following that exchange, Moore, the health director, said the piles could be breaking open storage laws.

“We’re going to monitor, and if it is found they are in violation,” Moore said, “appropriate enforcement action will be taken.”

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