I-TEAM: These chemicals are being sprayed in Columbia County schools. Are they dangerous?

Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 6:26 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2020 at 4:42 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Three days before kids went back to school in Columbia County, we showed you just how the county was going to fight against virus spread.

The county is using fogging machines. Their intentions are good, too.

The district has armed every one of its high schools with three of those machines. Every elementary and every middle school has two.

In the war against COVID-19, you could call them "the big guns." But not because of how they shoot. More like -- what they shoot and where and when they're shooting it.

A source shared this video of a bus being fogged after a route. It's roughly 10 seconds before the chemicals even settled. Not even half-an-hour later, we're told kids were boarding.

“So the fact that you’ve got students and bus drivers, maybe a little sick from the chemical, remember these are poisons and I’m not surprised at all,” Georgia Poison Control executive director Dr. Gaylord Lopez said.

Lopez watched the video after our interview and called it "crazy" and a "very bad idea" -- all caps.

"The school bus is really the hardest," parent Lori Stripling said.

Stripling says that's where her daughter first noticed a strong, chemical smell.

"And she said, 'It almost makes my chest burn,'" Stripling said. "When she gets to school, it gets a little bit better, but throughout the day she tends to get really, really nauseous."

We filed an open records request, specifically asking "What is the brand and name of the disinfectant used in the foggers?"

Enviro solutions ES-15 disinfecting cleaner and ES-64 disinfectant. We found both on a list and double-checked with the Environmental Protection Agency just to be sure.

The “N List” as it’s called is a lot like the one the FDA has for emergency drugs. Only this is the EPA and these are emergency cleaners.

We kept digging and eventually our shovels hit the details on two documents -- safety data sheets -- where, by law, companies have to list all the dirt or possible hazards. Right away, one SDS is a lot more alarming than others. For example, Symbol warns the ES-64 could cause cancer to respiratory problems to organ damage and more.

Not good, but Columbia County's facilities and maintenance director says not so fast.

“What you’re seeing on the SDS sheets and the information you’re looking at comes from the fact it’s a concentrate,” director Cliff Sanders said. “It’s shipped in half-gallon jugs, fully concentrated, for a 64 to 1 dilution ratio.”

Sanders also tells our I-Team that the district has been using the ES-64 for 4+ years now. The only difference is it’s now being used in the foggers.

So if anyone is having any sensitivity to something, it would be to the ES-15.

"It should be," Sanders said. "Yes. If that were the case."

We sent an Open Records Request for all chemical complants and the district sent us two -- both from teachers.

One calling the chemical smell "overwhelming", saying "my chest burned immediately. I got a headache and felt a little nauseated." Breathing problems persisted, so "I should probably get this checked out."

Another teacher is pregnant, and says her doctor wrote a note for her "not to be in contact with the disinfectant spray."

"These are fairly potent chemicals," Lopez said.

Another doctor says he saw "several patients" with upper respiratory irritation. "Teachers and maintenance workers" who should "stay away from the fogging for a week."

Associate superintendent Penny Jackson remembers some bus drivers speaking up that first week.

"We had a few that, you know, mentioned, 'Phew. It's a strong smell.' or, 'Phew, it's making me, you know, my eyes water,'" Jackson said. "That sort of thing."

But Jackson says it's about to get better. She says this week, the district will start installing ionization modules on busses. They work with the heater and air conditioner to help clean the air by killing mold, bacteria, and viruses like COVID-19, reducing the need for chemicals.

“We were fogging close to, well, 300 buses four times a day. And it was new to everyone. So we had a couple, a few bus drivers that might have not waited the two minutes to get back on the bus,” Jackson said.

Those two minutes are important because, according to the district, that’s how quickly the chemicals dry out. At school, teachers and students have a longer wait.

“We have a standard protocol request that requires anyone and an occupied space vacate it for a minimum of 10 minutes before they can come back in,” Sanders said.

Lopez says this isn't something that should be one size fits all.

"Air temperature and air quality -- all that's going to play a role, so there's not one specific time, but a lot of times we're throwing out common sense in favor of thinking this is safe and effective," Lopez said.

He says how people react to chemicals isn't the same either -- something this mom is seeing first hand. The first week of school, Stripling says all three of her kids had the same symptom.

“I need something for my head,” Stripling said. “My head is about to explode.”

After a few days and a few doses of ibuprofen, two of her kids were back to normal. She says her oldest child still feels sick every day.

"Couple minutes of being home and everything's settling down? No more runny nose. No more watery eyes. No more symptoms," Stripling said.

She's been trying to tough it out, though because of the marching band. Her dream is to march in a major college program.

“It’s a weight, you know, sickness now, or future with band, which weighs more?” Stripling said.

If she chooses to go virtual and learn from home, she'll have to sit this season out -- putting experience and maybe even scholarships at risk. That doesn't leave the Stripling family with many options.

“It’s ‘either-or.’ the school board’s position is you have to do what is best for your family. And as much as I realize, changing her future and that possibility. I can’t keep exposing her to something that is physically making her ill,” Stripling said.

Meanwhile, Lopez hopes all school districts will take a hard look at the chemicals they're using. He says no one -- not one single district in the state -- has called on his agency to help. He says he hopes that changes because he's worried districts are making mistakes.

"It's like trying to kill a fly with a cannonball, and you don't really need those potent of chemicals, and if you do use them, be aware that there exists a potential for untoward effects to happen," Lopez said.

Effects that he worries will linger much longer than the smell.

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