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Fumes sicken staff, force Dunsmore Elementary to close 2 classrooms

Two teachers are also sickened, school expected to return to normal soon, officials say.

September 27, 2011

Dunsmore Elementary School students displaced last week by chemical fumes released during the cleanup of a decomposing animal were expected to return to their classrooms Wednesday, district officials said.

Two teachers sickened during the incident remain on medical leave, while Principal Karen Stegman and a maintenance worker were examined Friday and cleared to return to work, officials said. No students were harmed.

The episode began on Sept. 20 when school staff noticed a peculiar odor and asked maintenance workers to investigate.

“To me, it smelled like an old diaper that had been sitting in a trash can for a couple of days,” Stegman said.

They eventually determined that the smell was emanating from an animal hole burrowed alongside a pipe under a set of cement stairs, Glendale Unified spokesman Steven Frasher said.

“Apparently there had been some attempt to fish the thing out that proved unsuccessful,” Frasher said. “A couple of enterprising members of the crew came up with this plan to try and disinfect and de-stink the thing.”

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Maintenance workers poured industrial strength cleaner down the hole, but did not backfill it with dirt, Frasher said. Overnight on Sept. 21, fumes from the solution rose into one kindergarten classroom and one kindergarten-first grade split classroom, irritating the teachers’ eyes, throat and sinuses.

“When the teachers arrived on Thursday it was apparent that there was no way kids could occupy the classroom,” Frasher said. “Our facilities team was notified again that there was a problem.”

The displaced students were squeezed into alternative classrooms according to grade level, and an extra teacher and parent volunteers were added to handle the increased numbers, Stegman said.

After being exposed to the fumes, kindergarten teacher Karen Nagao went on leave Thursday, and kindergarten-first grade teacher Debbie Kramer went on leave Friday. They hope to return to work sometime this week after being examined by a pulmonologist, they said.

The animal hole has since been back-filled, and the classrooms continue to be ventilated, Frasher said. An industrial hygienist has been brought in to determine when the rooms are safe to occupy.

“Yes, it has been a bit of an inconvenience, but I think we have all made the best of it,” Stegman said.

-- Megan O'Neil, Times Community News

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Photo: Dunsmore Elementary students during a drama class. (File photo)

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