By Mary O’KEEFE
Two Dunsmore Elementary School teachers are on medical leave after fumes from industrial chemicals used to deal with a decomposing rodent under a classroom made them ill.
Two classrooms, one kindergarten and one kindergarten/first grade split, have been closed and the affected students have been placed in other classrooms after chemicals used by school staff to cover the smell from a decomposing animal created a health hazard.
“We aren’t sure what kind of animal it was. It was so badly decomposed,” said Dunsmore Principal Karen Stegman.
“A couple of our [staff] members took self initiative and used a cleaner that is used to maintain drains,” said Steven Frasher, spokesman for Glendale Unified School District.
The chemicals used were not the same strength as a Drano-type cleaner, Frasher added.
“It wasn’t to rush the decomposition but to mask the smell,” Frasher said. He added the workers did not cover the animal after pouring the chemical on it. He said that covering would have helped.
The workers attempted to reach the apparent rodent to move it out of the area, however it was near a pipe and impossible to retrieve.
The chemical was poured onto the animal on Wednesday evening. By the time the teachers arrived early Thursday morning the fumes in their classrooms were strong.
“The smell stung your eyes and burned your nose,” said Debbie Kramer, the kindergarten/first grade teacher who is now on medical leave.
Kramer said she and kindergarten teacher Karen Nagao, who was also affected, stayed in their room not realizing at first how strong the smell was.
“I was in my room for about a half an hour,” she said. “Karen was there for longer.”
During kindergarten tea, just before school started this year, Kramer said there was an obvious smell. She now knows it was the decomposing animal.
“We sprayed air freshener and lit candles,” she said of attempts to mask the odor.
The search was on for the smell’s origin, but the area the animal was in made it difficult to locate.
When the cause of the smell was found and the chemicals were used, Kramer said they were told it was an organic compound. They soon discovered it was stronger.
“The kids were never in the classroom, but we stayed to get as much stuff as we could. We were moved to an empty room. We were grabbing crayons, paper and markers,” she said.
By midmorning, teacher Nagao had a consistent cough and went home, Kramer said.
“It was Thursday night when it got worse [for me],” Kramer said.
She added that Nagao’s lungs seem to be affected whereas Kramer’s voice and throat are feeling the affects of the exposure. On Wednesday, Kramer’s voice was still raspy and at times she would lose it altogether.
Her youngest son does not seem to have a problem with her inability to talk.
“It’s okay – I get my point across,” Kramer joked.
Both Kramer and Nagao have seen several doctors including a pulmonary physician to make certain they are cleared to go back to class.
She said that several parents have called her, concerned about her welfare. She wants her students, and parents, to know that she is doing better and is planning on returning next week.
“I miss the kids terribly,” she said. “I am thinking, ‘It’s recess time. I wonder who is taking the balls out.’”
Kramer has been teaching at the school for 22 years. She misses her students and fellow teachers.
“I am really glad the kids are safe. They have always been our priority,” she said. “The substitutes are incredible.”
Kramer also praised Principal Stegman.
“She has been wonderful. A great leader always looking out for the kids and for us,” she said.
The Certified industrial hygienist, air quality, has been at the school and is monitoring the fumes.