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Air Scare

Local Matters


Published July 7, 2005 at 7:39 p.m.

At least five people associated with Burlington High School, including three teachers, the wife of a teacher and a former student, all developed potentially deadly heart problems that they believe were caused by a virus that may have spread through the school's ventilation system in the winter of 2002.

Arnie Gundersen, a physics teacher at BHS, says he was diagnosed with viral pericarditis, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. Gundersen subsequently learned that four other people associated with BHS, including his wife, Margaret, contracted viral pericarditis or viral myocarditis, a similar condition that damages the heart muscle. According to Gundersen, all five came down with their illnesses within months of one another in the winter of 2002. Thus far, the only known factor linking the Gundersens to the others is the school itself.

Two of those who contracted myocarditis have since recovered, including Bill McGrath, a teacher who had been in line for a heart transplant because of it. A former BSH student, who asked to remain anonymous, contracted viral pericarditis and missed two years of varsity sports. That student made a full recovery and no longer lives in Burlington.

However, one teacher is currently receiving treatment in Boston for the life-threatening heart ailment and may require a transplant or valve replacement because of it. Gundersen, who missed three weeks of work himself, says his doctors believe he carries a strain of the Coxsackie B virus, but is not contagious. Because he has not had a biopsy, however, there is no medical evidence that his virus matches the one the ailing educator contracted.

Three of those who became ill are, or were, under the care of Dr. Robert Battle of South Burlington, who was the first to suspect that the cases may be related. In an April 14 letter to Dr. Paul Reiss, another physician treating Gundersen, Battle writes, "It is interesting that Arnold is at Burlington [High] School where another patient I have been associated with developed probable viral myocarditis, and one of the students developed pericarditis as well. Accordingly, there may have been a virus there that was wreaking havoc on individuals."

The suspect is Coxsackie B -- which is actually a class of six viruses that cause symptoms such as rashes, fever, fatigue and chest pains. According to a Stanford University website, Coxsackie B viruses aren't usually deadly, but do have a 20 percent rate of recurrence and can cause permanent heart damage. Coxsackie B can be spread through airborne exposure, by hand-to-hand contact, or through contaminated surfaces such as desks or telephones.

The teachers and union reps believe a virus may have been spread through the school's air ducts. That suspicion has not been confirmed. The school replaced its ventilation system in the summer of 2002. But for Gundersen and the others, the case isn't closed.

"We had a meeting with the school six months ago and they promised us that they would certify the building is safe, and they still haven't done that," Gundersen says. He adds that the union has brought a formal grievance to the administration, but has been "stonewalled" in its efforts to get satisfactory answers. Gundersen asserts the school conducted a study last summer on the ventilation system, but hasn't been informed of its findings.

As of press time, the teachers and representatives from their union planned to notify the school board about the alarming cluster of illnesses at its Tuesday night meeting. "None of us really wanted to turn this into a lawsuit," Gundersen says. "But we wanted to take care of [the teacher in Boston] and make sure [he/she] is protected. Right now the district isn't ready to do that."