Mind and Body

Have students become the canary in the coal mine?

Apparent carbon monoxide poisoning of her daughter at a local high school prompts a mother to become a community activist, leading to action at the State House

Photo courtesy of Pauline Belal

Trinity, left, and her mother, Pauline Belal.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/15/18
After her 17-year-old daughter was apparently sickened by carbon monoxide at a local high school, her mother has attempted to sound the alarm, finally gaining some attention at the State House.
Why are carbon monoxide testing devices and alarms not already mandatory in public schools in Rhode Island? How prevalent is mold in the state’s schools, and what kinds of remediation are scheduled? Why is it so difficult for a mother’s voice to be heard by the local school committee and city officials?
One of the benchmarks for future educational achievement and economic attainment is school attendance. Chronic school absence is considered a warning sign of future problems. Yet the dismal environmental conditions in Rhode Island’s public schools may be triggering chronic problems related to school absence, such as asthma. If the state wants to invest in building the future workforce, the path may begin with investing to correct the reported awful conditions in the schools.

CRANSTON – There is sometimes a lot of lip service given by elected officials and community leaders who say that they want to listen and be attentive to what the public has to say. But, all too often, many citizens find it difficult to be heard, particularly when it comes to potentially dangerous health, safety and environmental concerns in schools.

Ever since her 17-year-old daughter, Trinity, was sickened from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning, along with dozens of other students, that allegedly occurred on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, at Cranston East High School, when the heating system at the school was first turned back on, Pauline Belal has been battling with teachers, the school nurse, school administrators, the city’s school committee and the R.I. Department of Health to be heard and believed.

Her daughter, after numerous recurrences of symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, confirmed by her pediatrician, resulting in a number of trips to the hospital emergency room, has finally been able to receive approval to attend a rehabilitation program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital for three-to-six weeks, continuing with tutoring and home schooling while she recovers.

Belal has also gained some traction in having her story heard at the State House. She is scheduled to testify in support of a bill being introduced by Rep. Joseph McNamara, chair of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, to install carbon monoxide detectors in all Rhode Island schools by 2019.

Belal has also met and talked at length with R. I. Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and with members of Sen. Jack Reed’s office, to address the needs of schools.

The conditions at the high school are deplorable, according to Belal. “There is mold growing all over this building,” she told ConvergenceRI. “The teachers are setting up their own mousetraps and carbon monoxide [alarms].”

“Zombified”
Belal, who admits to being a talker, said that when her daughter was taken to the hospital emergency room following the incident on Nov. 1, 2017, her carbon monoxide level was measured at 6.8, three hours after the reported incidence, which Belal said left her daughter and many other students “zombified.”

But, when the R.I. Department of Health officials went to test the Cranston East High School for potential high levels of carbon monoxide, Belal said, they allegedly left the windows open before they conducted the tests.

In turn, officials also tested Belal’s home, which she said was found to be “free and clear” after testing and inspection for carbon monoxide.

Long-term impact
For Trinity, who plays both the cello and the violin, the long-term impact from the carbon monoxide poisoning continues to take a toll, according to her mother. “She has difficulty remembering the music,” Belal said.

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