Landfill odor sickens students, staff at Cortland Elementary

CORTLAND – Classes will resume Wednesday at Cortland Elementary School after an incident at the Waste Management landfill Tuesday sent more than 60 people to the hospital for low levels of carbon monoxide exposure.

DeKalb District 428 crews noticed an odor in the elementary school just before 10 a.m., Superintendent James Briscoe said. Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow said a contractor performing construction at the landfill hit a pocket of old, decomposing garbage releasing the odor, but no methane gas, into the air.

“Any future work will be performed only when favorable conditions exist or the school is not in session as we complete this construction project,” Disbrow said in a statement. “We hope to have this project completed in the next two weeks, again based upon favorable conditions.”

Officials had not determined late Wednesday what chemicals caused the odor. Neither the school’s nor the landfill’s hydrogen sulfide monitors alarmed, and firefighters did not find carbon monoxide in the school.

An inspector from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Bureau of Land will visit the site Thursday, said Kim Biggs, a spokeswoman for the environmental agency. Biggs said Waste Management officials described a heavy, sour odor.

The wind carried that odor to the school where it got caught in the ventilation system, Briscoe said.

“Our ventilation system is good, but it was just so concentrated,” Briscoe said. “We opened doors and it wasn’t long before you couldn’t smell anything.”

Despite school officials’ efforts, 63 students and staff reported headaches, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms and were taken to Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb. Around 530 students attend Cortland Elementary.

William Zaver watched fellow students in his fourth-grade class develop sore throats after the overpowering odor moved through the school Tuesday morning.

“I saw three people in my class get sick,” 10-year-old Zaver said. “It smelled a lot like gas.”

The nausea students and staff reported feeling Tuesday morning was due to minor carbon monoxide exposure, said Michael Kulisz, chief medical officer for KishHealth System.

Kulisz suggested parents monitor their children for headaches, nausea and vomiting for about 24 hours.

Fresh air is the first course of treatment, but parents should use their judgment about whether they need to bring children into the emergency room to be given oxygen, he said.

According to Cortland Assistant Fire Chief Kelly Davis, when emergency crews first responded to the scene, their tests for air quality showed no levels of any contaminants such as carbon monoxide.

“Our air quality monitoring showed no levels of anything at all. Not from the initial sweep through the time the last units left the scene,” Davis said.

The low levels of carbon monoxide were detected using an oximeter on students and staff who reported feeling ill. The doctor on the scene recommended those patients be transported to the emergency room, Davis added.

Parents were told early Wednesday afternoon they could pick up their children, and remaining children were taken to the cafeteria where the ceilings are higher until buses could take them home at the normal time.

“I got a voice mail from the school saying there was an issue,” said Chris Fowler as he walked his son Rowan, 8, out of the school.

“It smelled like a dump,” said Rowan, a second-grade student.

Firefighter/paramedics from several departments responded, including Cortland, DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston, Maple Park, Rochelle, Elburn, Burlington and Hinckley. First responders included nine ambulances, three fire engines and one rescue squad carrying more than 30 emergency personnel.

Fire officials cleared the scene around 3 p.m. after four hours there, Davis said.

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