Emergency services at South End School last Friday. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

PAM GRAHAM

pam.graham@age.co.nz

A truckload of mushroom compost delivered to a house separated from South End School by a wire fence is the source of the sickness that gripped children on Friday afternoon, police say.

The mystery of what caused the biggest emergency response to a school lockdown was solved on Monday morning, and there was no ongoing danger.

Wairarapa Police Area Commander Inspector Scott Miller said the truckload of compost was uplifted from a local compost manufacturer he would not name, just after 1pm, and it was put in a pile at the back of the house at 1.15pm.

The first children became sick from the effects of the sulphur smell a few minutes later.

Police had earlier been looking at a timeframe between 2.15pm to 2.30pm but now understood it to be earlier.

He said the compost was fresh, and still hot. It was also a hot day.

Illya McLellan, whose vege garden was the place the one cubic metre of compost was dropped, said there was a suspicion that it had something to do with the compost as early as Friday evening.

“The police came over and asked me about it,” he said. “The thing I find hard to believe is there is any association between the sickness and the compost. I think this is a bit of a case of hysteria.”

Senior police came back to his property on Monday.

McLellan said no one in his household became sick and his dog “chews the stuff”.

Miller said the kids who fell sick had been at the rear of the school close to where the compost was.

A spokesperson for Parkvale Mushrooms, who declined to be named, said the company had never experienced problems like this in its 52 years of operation, and it provided compost to schools for gardening programmes and fundraisers.

Miller said the seven children worst-affected had only low-level symptoms by the time they got to Wairarapa Hospital.

“It is extremely unlikely there will be any ongoing effects on those children,” he said.

There was nothing to suggest the compost was handled incorrectly, he said.

“I know of no other situations like this,” Miller said. “The response from the emergency services was correct and at the right level. The safety of children is paramount.”

Carterton Mayor John Booth thanked “Scott and his team” for “coming to the resolution we got today”.

“I can’t speak highly enough about the school and the principal and the way they contained the site, and also the amazing response from our emergency services,” Booth said.

McLellan posted on the school’s Facebook page that it showed how something small like an unpleasant odour can blow up into a national incident.

“Kids smell compost, some kid says he saw a plane fly over the school with stuff dropping out of it. Some kid feels sick. Some other kid feels sick. The plane did fly over the school, but was an aerobatic plane flying to the South Island. The compost did stink, it’s compost.

“In recent weeks a bout of gastro has been going around the kids of the area. One school had 40 children sick at one time in recent weeks. I think all of this stuff came together and created a perfect little Carterton storm.

“I commend the school on taking the possibility of a threat seriously, and also the sterling work of the emergency services.”