The River Reporter
January 26, 2006

Mold a growing problem locally and nationally
Remediation is easy but often costly

By Fritz Mayer

Liberty, NY — Parents are worried that mold in school buildings are making their children sick. On Thursday, January 19, about 24 concerned parents and residents showed up a meeting of Healthy Schools Healthy Kids (HSHK) to plan a course of action on how to deal with the issue of mold in the schools.

Terry Planica, a teacher in the Liberty Middle School, said when her “students come back from music class, they complain of headaches” and other symptoms. The music room is in the basement.

Elizabeth McAllister, Angela Page, and John Buchanan
Angela Page, center, in protective breathing gear, participates in a meeting of Healthy Schools Healthy Kids. The former librarian’s doctor says her health was permanently damaged by a mold in the Liberty Middle School.
Sharon Gates took her 16-year-old daughter to the doctor for coughing, vomiting and other symptoms. She suspects mold at the school may be the problem because her daughter’s symptoms diminish when she’s not in school.

The Liberty board of education has pledged to spend $300,000 to correct the problem, but members of HSHK say they are not doing it correctly and may be exacerbating the problem.

Liberty is hardly alone. The Sullivan West school board has hired a consultant to determine if there is still mold at the high school in Lake Huntington. Members of HSHK said a teacher, who has been disabled by mold, is suing the Fallsburg Central School system, though a spokeswoman for the superintendent said “there is no mold problem.”

On the national level, hundreds of schools are dealing with mold complaints.

Dr. David Strauss, a professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Texas Tech University, said mold became a serious issue in buildings in the United States beginning in the 1970s.

“Two things have changed. First, we build our buildings tight,” he said.

In the ’70s, when energy prices started to soar, buildings were made much tighter to save money on cooling and heating. That also meant that when mold spores are released into the air in the building, there is no way for them to get out.

The other thing that changed is the universal use of sheet rock instead of plaster. Strauss said “sheet rock is really a paper sandwich. It has paper on both sides,” and mold loves paper and sheetrock.

Appearing on the public radio station WJFF, Strauss said that mold reproduces by sending spores into the air. It has long been known that human inhalation of large concentrations of mold spores causes a variety of respiratory diseases.

“Molds also produce mycotoxins, which are really nothing more than fungal poisons. Certainly they produce these poisons when they grow inside buildings.” Strauss said the group he works with is working to determine whether mycotoxins occur in sufficient quantities to cause illness in humans.

According to the National Institutes of Health, patients who have been exposed indoors to molds, spores and mycotoxins show symptoms of asthma, airway irritation and bleeding, dizziness, and impaired memory and concentration. Other experts say exposure to mold spores and mycotoxins can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a lung disease, and “multiple chemical sensitivities.”

Some of these illnesses can become very serious and debilitating, especially if caused by chronic exposures to the mold spores over a long period of time.

Virtually everyone agrees that the way to get rid of mold in a building is to prevent water and dampness from coming into the building, and then to get rid of any materials, such as sheetrock and ceiling tiles, that have been contaminated.

But preventing water infiltration can be expensive, especially in cases where the school building has been built in a wet area or on a spring. Remedies in such situations can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But if the water is not stopped from getting into the building, the mold will certainly return.

Getting rid of the mold requires specific procedures. According to Anthony Hibbert, a consultant who conducts mold inspections and performs mold remediation, contaminated material can be removed from a school building while the students are still using the school. But the area being decontaminated must be contained. Plastic sheeting must be in place to prevent the mold spores from spreading to the occupied areas of the building. When workers start tearing apart sheetrock, the spores from the mold can be spread through the building, sometimes making the problem worse.

At Thursday’s meeting of HSHK, Liberty Central School Board of Education President David Burke invited members to attend a meeting of the school’s Facilities and Planning Committee to get information about the steps being taken to remedy the mold problem. The members of the group are going to take him up on the invitation. They will try to ensure that the mold remediation is done by using the best industry practices.