Amy Johnson is on a crusade against mold, and she is determined to keep pressing Stafford County officials about the organisms she believes have sickened her 7-year-old and other children and employees at Grafton Village Elementary School.
What she doesn't have is public outrage on her side.
Johnson is among a small group of Stafford parents who have been meeting since spring to discuss mold, which the parents believe is responsible for their children's nosebleeds, asthma and headaches -- symptoms that they said disappear during the summer, when school is not in session.
County officials began conducting tests at Grafton Village in 2003 after teachers refused to work in the building because of mold growing on corkboards, a concrete ceiling and textbooks.
Officials hired professional testing and special cleaning services, but test results in June showed that mold levels are still slightly elevated. The tests also indicated the presence of low levels of pesticides banned decades ago.
Although school and health officials said they believe the issue is under control at Grafton Village, the questions Johnson and other parents have raised are the subject of a national debate about mold's relationship to health problems ranging from asthma to infertility. Parents at two of Stafford's 16 elementary schools -- including one in which mold was found in the basement -- are demanding testing and more information.
But Johnson and about 10 other families confronting the school system said they are surprised that more parents do not share their indignation and have not attended their gatherings or school board meetings.
"I think people want to trust their local representatives and that school officials wouldn't put them at risk," Johnson said Wednesday night at a meeting of 10 parents and employees and former employees of Grafton Village. They want to hire their own testing company.
"I might feel that way if [my son] were the same in school as out of school, and if there weren't so many kids in this school who have the same health problems," Johnson said.
Jeff Dunn, whose daughter is to attend Stafford Elementary School in the fall, said one of his other children "developed a deep, raspy cough" because of mold in her bedroom closet. Since then, he has become worried about mold in schools.
"I want them to test the facility," said Dunn, who attended the meeting. "I said I'd pay myself."
Donald Stern, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District, said the problem at Grafton Village is more a public relations issue rather than a public health one. He said some recent medical reviews have found that fears about mold are unfounded.
"I understand that parents are concerned about health problems, but [a link to mold] is backed up by neither evidence nor my experience," he said, citing a 2002 report by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. According to the report, "the present alarm about human exposure to molds in the indoor environment" is not supported by current scientific evidence.
The debate has persisted, however, in part because there are no national, state or local standards about what levels of mold are considered unhealthy, said Daniel Milliron, project manager for fungal assessment for Professional Service Industries Inc., which conducted the recent tests at Grafton Village. "I think there is a general feeling that some respiratory illnesses are aggravated by mold, but it's not settled," he said. "The science hasn't firmed up on mold."
Samuel Jones, who was a custodian at Grafton Village from 1995 to 2003, said employees had been complaining about mold at the school since he started working there. "It was on the kids' desks," he said at the meeting.
It wasn't until 2003 that Stafford school officials hired a company to conduct tests at the school that found elevated levels of mold. The school was cleaned with air vacuums, but parents said the problems persisted.
Suzanne Surles, a member of the Grafton Village PTA board, said she has been concerned since her daughter's asthma and mold allergy were diagnosed three years ago, when she was in second grade.
"In the spring, we see a difference in her behavior," said Surles, whose daughter, 10, will leave the school after finishing fifth grade next year. Mold problems typically arise in the spring because of rain and melting snow.
"It's an obvious problem -- she went from straight A's to saying she has a headache and can't concentrate," Surles said. Her daughter takes medication for her ailments during the school year but is able to stop during the summer because her symptoms wane. "It's clearly the mold," Surles said.
Stafford school officials said they are doing everything they can, including hiring PSI and testing for pesticides.
"We're taking the extra steps to make sure parents feel comfortable," said Valerie Cottongim, spokeswoman for the county school system. Stern, the area health director, is reviewing the results of PSI's tests and will meet with school officials Wednesday.
But parents at the meeting last week said they don't trust a contractor hired by the county and want to pick a company to conduct more tests. They also questioned school officials' guarantee that trace levels of such long-banned pesticides as DDT and methyl parathion aren't causing health problems.
"We want them to prove to us that they've done everything that they can and that all the schools are safe," Johnson said.
Gregory Mentel, who did the pesticide testing for PSI, said methyl parathion is allowed as an outdoor pesticide and could have been tracked inside the school, or it could be leftover from before indoor use was banned.
Although all DDT use was banned in 1972, Mentel said it is a long-lasting pesticide that is hard to eradicate.
Cottongim said the school system plans to take the cleaning precautions that PSI recommended for Grafton Village and already had decided to replace the school's carpet with tile to try to ease allergies.
The school system has spent $100,000 dealing with mold at Grafton Village.
PSI also has found mold in a basement mechanical room at Ferry Farm Elementary School, and the school system has asked the company to conduct air-quality testing.