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Gopher bomb caused illness

Del Norte High School Principal Jan Moorehouse explains what happened Monday when sulphur from some gopher bombs wafted into classroom windows. At least two people reported feeling ill. One of those, a teacher, collapsed and was taken to the hospital. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Del Norte High School Principal Jan Moorehouse explains what happened Monday when sulphur from some gopher bombs wafted into classroom windows. At least two people reported feeling ill. One of those, a teacher, collapsed and was taken to the hospital. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

A pesticide used by groundskeepers outside a classroom Monday was apparently the cause of carbon monoxide found in the systems of one teacher and two students.

Sulphur bombs, used by a maintenance crew to kill gophers in gopher holes, reportedly wafted through an open window at Del Norte High School in classroom D6 Monday at about 9:30 a.m.

"I went outside into the corridor and passed out ... I collapsed on the floor," said teacher Timbre Beck-Murphy. "I had to flag down a student to get me some help while I was lying there."

Beck-Murphy said her second-period class could smell something unusual in the room, and several students complained either of headaches or a general ill feeling. The class was shifted to another room, but the move wasn't fast enough for Beck-Murphy.

The teacher was discovered to have elevated levels of carbon monoxide in her system after she was examined at Sutter Coast Hospital.

"It was carbon monoxide poisoning," she said. "The serious part of this is the students weren't followed up on until after 1 p.m." Beck-Murphy said students weren't tested for three and a-half hours from the time she fell ill.

"When I finally got to the office (after collapsing), I handed them a list of all the students that were here, and that 10 said they have symptoms," she said.

A memorandum from Principal Jan Moorehouse to school staff confirmed it wasn't until Monday afternoon that students were checked.

"At 1 p.m., we received a call from Sutter Coast Hospital telling us that Mrs. Beck-Murphy had an elevated carbon monoxide level in her bloodstream and was being provided oxygen therapy," Moorehouse wrote. "We were asked to send the students from her classroom to the hospital for testing and to call the fire department to research a possible carbon monoxide leak."

Two students eventually tested positive for carbon monoxide exposure. Beck-Murphy said their levels were high, but Moorehouse said they were low. Without contacting the families of the students, who were not named because of their age, there was no way to confirm either version yesterday.

"Once we found out the results of her test, we were sending students down there as fast as possible," Moorehouse said.

Beck-Murphy and Moorehouse both said school administrators at first suspected the teacher acquired her illness off campus, although Beck-Murphy said she did not believe that was possible.

"They said it happened in my car or at my house, and they said kids were just trying to get out of classes," Beck-Murphy said.

Moorehouse said the Crescent Fire Protection District checked for a source of carbon monoxide throughout the wing and could not locate anything.

"The groundskeeper said he'd actually used the sulphur bombs and we learned the symptoms were dizziness, fatigue and weakness," Moorehouse said. "For treatment, it called for fresh air. And if symptoms continue, to seek medical attention."

Moorehouse said she was unaware the sulphur bombs were being used by the grounds crew during school hours and didn't know the source of the carbon monoxide until about 3 p.m.

"I can assure you there will be no sulphur bombs used again during school hours or even near school hours," said Moorehouse. "We don't want to be disrupting our students and staff with incidents like this."

Bill Parker, boardmember of the Del Norte Unified School District, said yesterday he would investigate the incident.

"We're very limited with what we can use on the grounds ... we even limit lawnmowers from running during school hours," said Parker. "We try to use extreme caution, but personnel changes, time goes by, and people start doing different things."

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