Isaiah Carson was happy and healthy on an early April afternoon as he worked on spelling with his dad at the family’s kitchen table.
That wasn’t the case a few months earlier when he started having trouble breathing. He was wheezing and had a shallow cough.
Isaiah, who’s 5, would lie in bed with his parents at night, unable to sleep. His father, Michael Carson, felt helpless. “He scared me to death,” Carson said.
Isaiah’s doctor diagnosed him with an upper respiratory infection and prescribed an anti-inflammatory medication. He missed a week of kindergarten at Gateway Elementary School. His parents blame the illness on all the dust from work on the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing development right next to the school.
Last fall, trees and brush growing on the site after four decades of vacancy were torn out. They were soon replaced with debris piles brought by a demolition company working under contract with St. Louis Development Corporation from the site of the planned National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency West headquarters right across Cass Avenue.
The demolition company, Kolb Grading, struck a deal with Paul McKee, the prominent St. Louis developer who owns the former Pruitt-Igoe site, to store material there. Piles of concrete slab, brick and rock soon grew to 30 feet tall, towering over the chain link fence separating Pruitt-Igoe from the Gateway school complex’s north entrance.
Read part 2 of the investigation: Who's responsible for monitoring demolition material when it moves from a public project to private property.
The Gateway complex on North Jefferson Avenue in St. Louis’ Carr Square neighborhood is comprised of three schools — elementary, middle and an orthopedic special needs school — educating more than 1,000 students in all.
Parents and school staff expressed bewilderment about why Kolb Grading piled the debris so close to the school, rather than on another side of the vacant lot, or someplace else entirely. The vice president at the company, Jeff Kolb, has not returned numerous voicemails requesting an interview. McKee spoke with St. Louis Public Radio by phone but refused to be quoted or recorded.
One morning after dropping Isaiah off at school, Carson sat in his truck and watched the construction crews for about three hours “and my whole front windshield was dust.”
Carson began referring to the elementary side of the complex as “the dust bowl.”
St. Louis Public Radio spoke with more than a dozen parents, volunteers and staff members at the Gateway school complex. Through interviews and open records requests, we found dozens of students and staff suffered breathing problems during the height of excavation work.
The school nurse at Gateway Elementary fielded 359 complaints from students of asthma and breathing problems from the start of the school year until early April, according to information provided by the district. Use of medication to treat asthma attacks also increased this school year. Attendance dropped, according to staff, one of whom described it as “deplorable.”
Denise Washington has a daughter and two nephews at Gateway, one of whom has asthma. She said her nephew’s asthma started getting worse shortly after Thanksgiving.
“They’re out there playing, they’re inhaling it,” Washington said about the dust. “It gets on their clothes and they take it home with them.”
Another mother said she’s sent her daughter to school with emergency asthma inhalers for five years and never needed them. Her daughter has since used the medication twice while at school, in December and again in January.
‘Murky’ air sickens teachers too
St. Louis Public Schools did not make staff at the school available for recorded interviews. Six staff members from Gateway spoke to St. Louis Public Radio on the condition of anonymity out of fear they could be punished or lose their jobs.
The staff members said they often left work in late fall and early winter to find their cars covered in dust. One said on some days, the air outside the school looked “murky.”
“I had to hold my breath walking to the car sometimes,” another said.
Five of those employees said they experienced breathing problems this school year and consider the dust from next door a major factor. The staff members described swollen airways, shortness of breath while teaching, sinus infections, coughs and constant headaches.
Several workers said children were kept inside during lunch or recess on days when the air seemed particularly bad.
Sally Topping, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 420, the teachers’ union representing SLPS educators, said Gateway staff’s complaints are concerning. Topping visited Gateway in early spring and said she was “dismayed” when she saw the rubble piles.
“When you have something like this happen where staff is sick, children are sick, and more importantly, people are stressed out because they’re not sure why they’re sick, it affects the entire school atmosphere and it is not good for the children, not good for education,” Topping said.
SLPS declined an interview request to speak with an administrator. Instead, a spokeswoman provided a written statement, saying the district “is aware some concerns have been raised about construction projects near the Gateway Complex. In response, our Operations Team conducted testing and found no significant impact to air quality at the schools.”
St. Louis Public Radio was provided with results from a test for mold in two classrooms done on Sept. 21, 2017. The test did not find any mold. However, an air quality expert in Saint Louis University’s school of public health said a mold test was “not the right kind of test.” Professor Roger Lewis added that a mold test is “not sufficient” to address complaints of high levels of dust in the air by families and staff.
Custodial staff did change air filters in the building starting in December, according to maintenance logs. The district also convened two meetings with parents and staff.
One meeting was with officials from Ameren, which needs to relocate a power substation inside the former Pruitt-Igoe site. At the March meeting, the utility company offered to test soil underneath the school’s parking lot before digging into the ground. It found no hazardous materials, according to a copy of results provided through an open records request.
The second meeting, in April, included Kolb Grading, in which company officials assured parents it was done piling debris at Pruitt-Igoe and would hold off on more work, according to several people who attended.
The piles, however, still loom high over the school parking lot. They contain what in construction parlance is known as “clean fill,” meaning it didn’t test high for lead, asbestos or other hazardous chemicals, according to city and state officials.
The material that came from the NGA site “is not contaminated,” said Otis Williams, executive director of St. Louis Development Corporation, which is overseeing clearing of the land where the federal facility will be built. “It was appropriately tested.”
Williams said the work produced “an amount dust that would normally be around a construction site.”
A problem all by itself
But high levels of dust in the air, regardless of its contents, can still cause the health problems described by parents and Gateway staff, according to John Kraemer, an air quality expert and professor at Southeast Missouri State University.
“Breathing in particles can irritate the airway all by themselves,” he said.
Kraemer conducts home, school and office visits to look for triggers of asthma and breathing problems as chief executive of the Institute for Environmental Health Assessment & Patient Centered Outcomes. He has not been inside Gateway.
“If you have stacks of material that have been around for a long time, all the wind has to do is blow and you have a thing called fugitive dust,” Kraemer said. “Fugitive dust emissions can come from any piles of debris or soils or any kind of material that can be blown by the wind and it could blow it to the school.”
Health problems at the school have eased since the work halted. Yet parents' concerns linger as the work is only on hiatus.
Eventually, the concrete piles will be ground down for use in temporary roads and fill in the NGA construction. At the April meeting, the Kolb official said his workers would wait until after the school year ends later this month to resume work. He also said the company will take additional steps to reduce dust blowing toward the school, including monitoring wind direction and wetting down the material, according to people at the meeting.
Carson and other parents said they’re skeptical those steps will be enough to prevent more illnesses. Summer school begins at Gateway in early June, making parents doubtful the grinding work can be completed during times no children are in the building.
Carson said he loves the education his son is getting at Gateway but questions whether he'll keep his son at the school because of health concerns.
“Why would you bring all those rocks and dirt and dust right next to the school?” Carson asked.
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