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Mold Bad In No Virginia*
Mold in Schools Raises Fears of Illness
Unusually Wet Spring, Summer Fed an Ongoing Problem in Several Suburbs
By Michele Clock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2003; Page B03
At home, moldy bread goes in the garbage. Slimy mildew in bathtub grout calls for some bleach and elbow grease.
But at school, mold can be a serious problem. And this year, a wet spring and summer turned many local schools into petri dishes for mold to flourish.
One of the worst situations in the region is at Jennie Dean Elementary in Manassas, where white, powdery mold was first spotted on desks and carpets in July. Since then, at least two staff members have been hospitalized with respiratory complaints. Two other employees have left the school. One parent removed her child from school, and others have asked whether officials should close the school. Four temporary modular classrooms have recently arrived at the school.
Despite costly testing and cleanup, the mold has reappeared again and again.
Fairfax school officials spotted mold in about half of the county's 230 school buildings beginning in the summer months. Requests for mold cleanup come every year, but the number quadrupled this year, said Bill Mutscheller, director of maintenance for Fairfax schools.
"I've been working for the [Fairfax] school system since 1989, and this is by far the worst in terms of mold," he said. Fairfax has been able to contain the problem using direct cleaning methods, he said.
The problem is moisture. It's the chief culprit behind mold, and many school buildings were not designed to withstand extraordinary humidity, such as that seen in summer, Mutscheller said.
Heating and air conditioning systems react to the number of people inside a building, he said.
"Kids create heat, which forces the system to do more dehumidifying," Mutscheller said. "So this summer, we had two conditions working against us -- high humidity and no kids in the classrooms -- so the air conditioning was incapable of processing the humidity."
In Montgomery County, mold was found at about 15 of the county's 181 public schools, and instances were reported in Loudoun and Arlington counties. Officials there said the problems were successfully eradicated. In Arlington, six classrooms were closed temporarily. All are back in use.
In Prince George's County, maintenance director Larry Pauling said two schools had "major issues" with mold. All of the carpet was replaced in one school, and the other required a new roof to eliminate the mold. Both schools also had work done on their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, and Pauling said the mold has not recurred.
At Wakefield High School in Arlington, mold was found on the walls of four classrooms last summer. Teachers complained of dizziness, sinus problems and headaches. The mold has been eliminated, but one classroom is still used on a limited basis, said Mike Day, Arlington's director of maintenance services.
Some schools, such as Jennie Dean Elementary in Manassas, simply don't have the equipment to control humidity. This, combined with a moisture source a leaking roof at Dean -- create a ripe environment for mold.
Two Dean staff members were hospitalized, one teacher was diagnosed with pneumonia and 84 percent of staff members have experienced respiratory problems, according to an internal staff survey.
Staff members have complained of sore joints, asthma, general tiredness, sinus problems, headaches and other symptoms when they're inside the school. No student health survey has been conducted.
"Every Sunday night, you worry about what you're going to have the next day - a headache, loss of memories, dizziness," said Beverly Oliver, a special education teacher's assistant at Dean who was found to have reactive airway disease and four broken ribs from coughing.
"My [students] are medically fragile," she said. "They cannot talk. They're disabled. They can't tell you whether they have a headache or their joints are sore."
Exposure to mold can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks in sensitive individuals, the Environmental Protection Agency warns. And that covers about 20 percent of the population, said John Santilli, an allergist in Bridgeport, Conn., who has studied the effects of mold since 1978. Allergic reactions can also cause inflammation, leading to a weakened immune system, Santilli said. This can open the door to pneumonia and other conditions.
Like other plants, molds produce gases, toxins and allergens, said Curt Bluefeld, an environmental health and safety consultant for EHS Services Inc. in Monrovia, Md. Reactions vary when people come into contact with them. "Really, it's similar to what makes pollen cause allergies," he said.
There are no federal, state or local government standards when it comes to acceptable levels of mold in homes, offices or public buildings such as schools.
"There's a lot of hype out there that's not correct," Bluefeld said. "Each situation has to be evaluated independently."
Medical research on the health risks of mold is scanty. "It's a real gray and nebulous situation," said Robert K. Bush, a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There are a lot of unknowns. . . . [But] if you have it, you need to fix it. Unfortunately, that's the state of the science."
Several studies are underway, and a bill recently introduced in Congress calls for the EPA to set standards for preventing, detecting and remediating indoor mold.
In the meantime, individual jurisdictions tackle the problem as best they can.
Last month, the Manassas School Board voted to spend an estimated $3.1 million on a new roof and ventilation system for Jennie Dean Elementary. Those renovations are the two most important factors in preventing further mold outbreaks, said Dave Schauer, the city's director of school support services.
But the improvements won't be made until summer. Meanwhile, the school system is conducting air quality tests, but the usefulness of such tests is questioned.
"You could be in a classroom, and you could have an entire wall covered with growing, slimy molds," said Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network Inc., a research and advocacy group in Albany, N.Y. "You could conduct a mold test on the opposite wall and have it come to zero."
And mold doesn't go away on its own.
"The more you let it go, the worse it gets over time," Bluefeld said. "You're going to pay for it at some point. If you choose to not address the problem when it comes up, you're going to pay for it when it becomes a crisis."
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