Suit threatened over student's carbon monoxide poisoning
Pauline Belal has taken her daughter, Trinity Briceno, a 17-year-old senior at Cranston East, out of the school after Trinity experienced severe symptoms, including fainting, as a cause of high levels of carbon monoxide in her system. Belal said that her daughter is now receiving tutoring while she recoups and she won’t send her back to East unless a “proper” carbon monoxide test that shows a normal level is conducted.
Belal is now preparing to file an injury claim with the city, which owns the Cranston East school building, through the Bottaro Law Firm in the coming weeks. Belal estimated that she already had over $140,000 in hospital bills as a cause of her daughter’s symptoms, including a $2,700 ambulance run for her daughter’s initial trip from East to Hasbro Children’s Hospital. She also said there are going to be tutoring costs because she won’t let her daughter back into the school because of the severe symptoms she has had.
She said that her daughter’s blood work showed on at least seven occasions between November and December that she was being exposed to carbon monoxide when she went to school, before Belal eventually made the decision to pull her out.
Her lawsuit, she said, is based on the fact that she doesn’t think that the tests were properly done after an incident at East on November 1, when students and teachers reported dizziness and nausea – symptoms in line with carbon monoxide poisoning – and at least one student (Briceno) was hospitalized. She said in an open letter to the city that there were only “snatch-grab samples” being taken during the testing, the building was not sealed properly, and the boiler system was not turned on high for any extended period of time.
Ed Collins, Plant Operations Director for Cranston schools, said in an interview Tuesday that there have been two tests done since that first weekend in November, none of which showed “anything close” to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. He also said that the tests were done in all parts of the school, including a meter right near the exhaust area in the gym, a meter in the roof heating unit, a meter in the boiler room, and a meter in the exhaust area of the gymnasium, which was the hotspot for students reporting symptoms during the original incident.
“Carbon monoxide is a product of combustion,” he said. “So it mostly happens in a boiler room.”
Superintendent Jeannine Nota added that the tests were conducted by the out-of-state company Occupational Health and Safety, which is a certified environmental hygienist. Ray Votto, Chief Operating Officer for Cranston Schools, said that the decision to bring them in was voluntarily made after the fire department did the original test and the Department of Health had already conducted their testing.
Occupational Health and Safety could not be reached by press time Tuesday.
Nota also said that until they received reports indicating the building was safe, they wouldn’t allow any students in, which prompted a precautionary cancellation on the Monday following the initial incident.
Despite these reports from school officials, Belal said that she won’t send her daughter back to school unless “an individual 3rd party company along with state building inspectors perform an additional longer term continual sealed condition test” at the school immediately.
Collins said that there are no specific dates for when a test will be conducted, but he does think that they’ll do another metered test at some point this school year. Votto added that there is a meter set up currently in the gymnasium that they can check at any point.
On a state level, Representative Joe McNamara is introducing a bill “mandating that any school or building that has students in attendance for any portion of the day shall be required to have carbon monoxide detectors installed and maintained.”
He said that he’s seen first-hand the effects that carbon monoxide poisoning have on people when his neighbors had to be hospitalized during a storm after their generator caused high CO levels in their house.
“The infrastructure in many of our schools has been problematic, it raises the sheer age of the schools,” he said. “The fact is that carbon monoxide can be an odorless and a very quiet killer. To me it’s inconceivable that we don’t have carbon monoxide detectors protecting students…certainly CO detectors should be included in any type of safety infrastructure that we have.”
Belal plans to testify on behalf of the bill at the State House today. And during her presentation to the Cranston City Council Monday, many councilmen expressed their condolences for Belal and her daughter.
“Every home in Cranston has a detector,” Councilman John Lanni said. “How much would it cost to have them in Cranston schools? Every school building should have a carbon monoxide detector.”
Votto said Tuesday that in order for this to work “you’d have to put [detectors] in key locations and develop a plan for where the detectors would go, especially for a large building like East.”
Collins said that they would follow the codes set forth in the bill, but even a detector may not be completely effective in a location like Cranston East’s gym because of how spacious it is.
Belal’s case could turn into a trial in the coming weeks. The Mayor’s office could not comment on the case because of pending litigation and the school officials couldn’t comment specifically on Belal for that same reason.
For now, Belal is keeping Trinity out of school, which she said has possibly hampered her college prospects. Trinity is doing better health-wise, but is still seeing a neurologist and going back for checkups, Bilal said.
This issue also ties into the overall quality of Cranston East, she said, which she claims has mold and air quality issues.
“The health and welfare of our students and staff at our school buildings should be of [the city’s] most paramount concern,” she said Monday.