The smell hits Kitty Hernlen the second she walks into the classroom at Bayvale Elementary School.
"Sniff," she said to Scottie Paschal.
"Yeah, smell that," he said.
"It's in here somewhere," Hernlen said.
They quickly track down the source of the floral smell, an air freshener in a cabinet, and confiscate it as a potential trigger to an asthma attack. Hernlen, an assistant professor of respiratory therapy at Georgia Health Sciences University, is using a $30,000 grant from the W.G. Raoul Foundation in Atlanta to help Bayvale and schools in Warren and Emanuel counties improve their indoor air quality and potentially help control student asthma.
A string of at least 10 child deaths from asthma from 2006-2008, a high asthma rate, poor use of medications and a high poverty rate qualified Richmond County as one of the Environmental Protection Agency's "challenge" school districts, one of six nationwide. Richmond County used the agency's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program to create a district Indoor Air Quality policy, which outlaws bus idling at school, specifies what cleaning agents can be used and what can be kept in the classroom. Paschal, the indoor air quality coordinator for the Richmond County Board of Education, led a group from the school Thursday through every classroom searching for potential triggers and improperly stored food, which can attract bugs. And he found a lot of contraband.
Almost every classroom seemed to have some kind of cleaning product, which he also confiscated, along with pest sprays and other seemingly innocuous items. The red Yankee Candle on one teacher's desk caught Paschal's eye.
"The candle needs to be removed immediately," he said. Fragrances are a potential trigger of asthma. Food needs to be stored properly and never eaten in classrooms to help cut down on attracting pests, especially roaches, whose dander can trigger attacks, Hernlen said.
"Why can't we eat in here?" asked fifth-grader Doriana McCladdie. Hernlen tries to explain the pest problem.
"You don't want your friends to get sick, do you?" she said.
In fact, because every room seems to have a slightly different atmosphere, one of the things the school nurse will now track is not only which student got sick but which room they're in. They will be tracking teachers as well. Nickol Shepherd is convinced her classroom is behind the six colds she's had this year.
"I think it is the air quality in my classroom," she said.
"We're here to change that," Paschal said.
Hernlen also recorded levels of nitric oxide, a measure of lung inflammation, in the breath of faculty and staff volunteers and will return later to see whether the levels have gone down, a sign the changes have worked.
The school's principal, Dr. Dana Harris, said some of the teachers were in for a "rude awakening" when they found out what they couldn't have keep in their classrooms. But the school is excited about taking part in Hernlen's program.
"Parents and teachers and principals need to be educated" about asthma, she said. It is important "for the community and schools to work together."
The grant will also allow Hernlen and her respiratory therapy students to return next school year to teach Asthma Mini-Camp for students with asthma and their parents, as well as faculty and staff. While they can't control what happens outside the school, improving air quality is one thing schools can do, Hernlen said.