Eight metro school employees blame device for sickness - WSMV Channel 4

Eight metro school employees blame device for sickness

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A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found eight employees in two separate schools blaming a device designed to keep HVAC systems running clean for making them sick.

Music teacher Rich Moore said just encountering the device for six seconds made him so sick, he had to go to the emergency room and has had a year's worth of medical problems.

The device is made by the Tennessee company Flozone Services, Inc., and it is attached to HVAC systems in 126 metro schools.

The Flozone device uses ozone to help keep the HVAC systems clean by removing bacteria, mineral build up and rust.

On Aug. 6, 2011, Moore said he was in his classroom at John Overton High School when he smelled something he thought was chlorine or bleach.

"After about two hours, I started coughing and I thought it was coming down with the flu," Moore said.

After another teacher said she smelled it as well, Moore followed the scent next door to the mechanical room, that he said was propped open.

Moore said he went in and saw a device marked "Flozone Model 3000."

"The smell hit me powerfully, like I was choking. I felt like if I didn't get out of there quickly, I would possibly pass out," Moore said.

Photos from an investigation by Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration show a Flozone device was inside the mechanical room.

After alerting the school's principal, Moore went home, started feeling worse and ended up in the emergency room.

"I was sweating, I was weak, I was starting to cough, my lungs were starting to fill up with fluids, I couldn't sleep. My left leg was starting to go numb."

The medical report from the doctor who later examined Moore wrote that Moore was exposed to a concentration of ozone.

Moore said because the smell drifted into the hallway and his classroom, he worries about what would have happened if children had been in school that day.

"My concern is, if it happened to me, that is could happen again to a room full of students," Moore said.

But TOSHA's report indicated the manufacturer of the device, Flozone Inc., found that there was no leak in their device.

And the report shows that Flozone, Inc's own investigation found their safeguard devices called "sniffers," that's supposed to shut down the system if there's an ozone leak, didn't go off.

Metro schools director of workplace safety and training, Harold Finch, who investigated the incident, agreed to speak with the Channel 4 I-Team.

'If it wasn't a chemical leak, what was it?" asked Channel 4 chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.

"I can't answer that question. But we handled the situation as if it was a possible ozone exposure," Finch said.

A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found Moore wasn't the only John Overton employee who experienced a problem that day.

John Overton's principal, Dr. Shuler Pelham, wrote in an email obtained by the Channel 4 I-Team, "When I got within two feet of the (Flozone) device, the intensity of the odor was so strong that I involuntarily gagged, my eyes burned, and I had to run out of the building and get fresh air."

"Is it alarming to you that we don't know what happened?" Finley asked.

"It's alarming that we have an employee who is stating he got an illness. Regarding the functioning of the equipment, that is a question Flozone will have to answer," Finch said.

A representative from Flozone, Inc, would refused to do an on-camera interview with the Channel 4 I-Team.

But in a statement to the Channel 4 I-Team, Tony Engle with Flozone Services, Inc. wrote:

"After reviewing (TOSHA's) report's claims in detail, we believe that it makes some key assumptions that are not correct. At Flozone, safety is our top priority and we respond immediately when there is a concern of any kind. Our systems are designed to automatically shut down if an ozone leak is detected. Based on our new knowledge about this report, we will reach out to TOSHA immediately in efforts to present the facts and correct all unfounded information in the report."

The Channel 4 I-Team also uncovered in another school, seven additional employees claim to have gotten sick from a Flozone device.

An email from Finch indicates in September 2010, the Flozone device in the kitchen at Una Elementary malfunction and caused ozone to be emitted.

The email stated that seven employees claimed they experience nausea and headaches.

"Should parents be worried about these devices being in all these schools?" Finley asked.

"I don't think so. I think that the safety mechanisms that accompany the equipment are on a maintenance schedule, and we feel that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing as far as our relationship with Flozone and insuring that they function every day."

In an email from Engle, he acknowledges there was a leak at Una Elementary caused by trash debris that got into their system and ultimately damaged the pump.

"Our system recognized the leak and shut the ozone generator off as programmed," Engle wrote in an email.

Moore said he wants the district to do more research into the devices because he's still feeling the effects.

"I'm still not as a strong as I used to be. I used to paddle 12 kms on Percy Priest lake. Now if I do 5 (kms), I'm ready to head back to the dock," Moore said.

TOSHA was alerted to the incident at John Overton High school several months after it actually occurred, so their report couldn't exactly identify which chemical made Moore sick.

In their report, TOSHA inspectors presumed the chemical was ozone because of how it smelled and because of Moore's symptoms.

A metro school spokeswoman said they believe the door to the maintenance room at John Overton High School was shut the day of the incident and Moore shouldn't have entered.

Since that incident, all employees in metro schools have been told if they smell chemicals, they are not to go into the mechanical rooms and are instead to notify their principal.

Copyright 2012 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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