|Issue date: August 20, 2000
signs of mold at home or school
to learn more about mold
to other mold resources on the Web
things you must know about mold
More on mold:
the mold in your house kill you
our December 5, 1999 article on mold as it appeared in
Protection Agency's Indoor Air Quality
Schools: a health alert
By Arnold Mann
Telltale signs of mold at home
carpeting or stained ceiling tiles, indicating
odors. These often
signal mold growth.
cosmetic fixes. Replacing
ceiling tiles or painting stained wallboards can
disguise an underlying moisture problem, such as a leaky
humidity. Keep a
temperature-humidity gauge in the classroom or your
living room. Relative humidity should be consistently
air conditioning being shut down for long
periods (summer vacation, for example), especially in
hot or humid areas.
blackboards or large furniture positioned against
outside walls in hot,
humid climates. This can impede air flow and drying, and
promote condensation between these objects and the cool
plants are just another source of moisture that can
raise humidity and contribute to mold growth.
ast December, USA WEEKEND reported on a
Texas family driven from their new home by mold. Thef story
drew an unusually large response from readers, government
officials and other media. The federal government requested
reprints for flood victims, and CBS' "48 Hours" reported on
the same family after our story. This week, we look at the
emerging problem of mold in schools.
It seemed like a harmless enough idea, and a good project
for Mrs. Roueche's environmental science class in Greenville,
S.C.: scrape mold samples from the ceiling tiles at Eastside
High and send them off to be analyzed.
Roueche knew about molds and how they can make kids sick.
Her own children, who attended Buena Vista Elementary just
down the road, had been sick for years. First came the
nosebleeds, then the headaches, chronic sinus infections and
coughing. Nobody suspected the cause might be mold growing in
the school building until The Greenville News reported
that the highly toxic mold Stachybotrys had been found
at Buena Vista. Angry parents started pulling their kids out
of school. By the time it was over, the county had spent $1.9
million removing mold from the school, with kids herded into
temporary classrooms while men in protective clothing suitable
for contact with toxic materials cut out every bit of
mold-infested ceiling tile, wallboard and timber and hauled it
off for burial as toxic waste (the only safe way to get rid of
The lab results came back on the samples from Eastside High
in January 1999: Stachybotrys, just like Buena Vista.
"We really didn't expect to find what we did," Roueche says.
Now, after months of cleanup, many Eastside students are as
sick as -- or sicker than -- the kids at Buena Vista. Three
Eastside students have been placed on home study by their
doctors for health reasons in the past year. David Vass, 15,
has had headaches, congestion, ear infections and shortness of
breath since he came to Eastside last August. Ashley Reece,
18, says she coughs for weeks and loses her voice. "Just when
I'm starting to get it back," she says, "it starts again." Jon
Buchanan, 18, has spontaneous nosebleeds. Alicia Moose, 16,
has been hospitalized twice for headaches, partly because of
mold, and had to be home-schooled for two months last fall.
Memory problems also are common. Missy Minock, 18, says she
can recall every class and teacher she's had from kindergarten
on, "but I can't remember the classes I had last semester."
old in schools is on the rise and making
children sick. According to a Government Accounting Office
report, 20% of the USA's 80,000 public schools have indoor air
quality problems. "I'm inundated with schools," says Richard
Shaughnessy, program manager of Indoor Air Research at the
University of Tulsa and an instructor in the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency's Tools for Schools indoor air
quality training program. Shaughnessy travels around the
country teaching districts how to keep their schools free of
indoor contaminants. (EPA chief Carol Browner says the agency
"has been committed to providing school administrators with
simple, low-cost methods that improve air quality and have a
significant impact on children's health.")
Microbiological contaminants -- particularly molds --
account for half of indoor air health complaints, says Marilyn
Black, chief scientist at Atlanta-based Air Quality Sciences,
a leading indoor air quality testing firm. That means as many
as 7,500 public schools have indoor air problems related to
mold. Mold can start growing any time water leaks, Black says,
and schools, many of which have flat roofs that collect water,
are "notorious" for leaks.
Chronic leaks can turn ceiling tiles, wallboard or wood
into ready-to-eat mold food. Common molds like
Cladosporium and Penicillium can grow to toxic
levels, triggering allergic reactions, including asthma, as
well as sinus infections, headaches, coughing, and eye and
throat irritation. Others, like Stachybotrys,
Memnoniella and Aspergillus versicolor, produce
airborne toxins, called mycotoxins, which can cause even more
serious problems, including chronic fatigue, loss of balance
and memory, irritability, and difficulty speaking.
Children are more susceptible to mold-related illness than
adults, because their lungs and other organs are still
developing, says Ruth Etzel, M.D., former chairwoman of the
Committee on Environmental Health of the American Academy of
Pediatrics. "Pediatricians used to consider molds a nuisance,"
Etzel says, "but in the last five years we've come to consider
them an actual health hazard." Mold-related respiratory
problems often go undiagnosed among kids, she says, because
"most pediatricians don't think about molds when they see a
child with respiratory problems."
The mere presence of mold, even Stachybotrys, does
not necessarily mean symptoms of respiratory illness are
caused by that mold, cautions Claudia Miller, M.D., an
environmental health expert at the University of Texas Health
Science Center at San Antonio. Other factors, including
volatile organic compounds and a lack of fresh air, can cause
similar symptoms. But she says no amount of visible mold is
appropriate at school.
with schools," says Richard Shaughnessy, a Tulsa air
quality expert who travels the country teaching school
districts how to avoid contaminants such as mold. He's
among the experts participating in Sunday's chat at
hgtv.com co-hosted by HGTV and USA WEEKEND.
When mold is cleaned up, the sick usually get better, but
these cleanups are budget breakers. In 1998, California's
Sacramento School District borrowed $5 million to put new
roofs on its high schools, where garbage cans had doubled as
water collectors. In February, Hill Elementary School in
Austin, Texas, evacuated all 777 pupils when large amounts of
Stachybotrys and Penicillium due to roof leaks
were found. Several teachers and kids needed medical care.
This school year, pupils and staff will remain at an alternate
site while Hill is gutted and renovated. El Paso has spent
$4.2 million for mold-related renovations of 14 schools, says
Ed Sevcik, former director of facilities for the school
district. "We're moving as fast as we can," he says. "I don't
think El Paso is any different from any other district facing
this problem. The funds just aren't there."
eth Roueche's environmental science class
had a clear plan. The kids mapped out all visible mold in the
building and selected five test sites, then Roueche scraped
mold samples from water-stained ceiling tiles into plastic
bags and sent them off to Mycological Testing Service, an
independent mold-testing company in New Jersey. What came back
shocked everyone: Two of the five samples -- from the library
and the hallway -- contained Stachybotrys.
Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus
also were present in some samples.
The school district took its own air samples and assured
everyone that the Stachybotrys was not airborne and
therefore not a threat. Roueche counters that "Stachy" spores
are sticky and rarely show up in air samples. "They said we
only found mold in five ceiling tiles, but I explained we only
Roueche says kids and teachers started getting sicker
during cleanup, when workers without protective clothing
started tearing out mold-infested ceiling tiles and throwing
them on classroom floors, with students present. Oby Lyles,
executive communications director for the Greenville County
school district, confirms that workers collected and removed
hundreds of ceiling tiles but says all the work was done after
Using the EPA's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Kit,
Roueche's class began conducting teacher surveys and
monitoring rooms for temperature and humidity. Today, her
classroom is full of charts documenting "hot spots."
"I won't sit back and watch this stuff cook me and my
kids," teacher Sammie Liberatore said before leaving Eastside
for another job. "Something's got to be done. A learning
environment is one thing; a dangerous one is quite another."
Roof repairs are "ongoing" at Eastside, says communications
director Lyles, with moldy ceiling tiles being replaced as
needed. The roof is now being replaced, he says, and the
district's custodial staff, servicing nearly 100 schools and
60,000 students, has had mold training. "Once we encountered
the problems with Buena Vista," Lyles says, "it raised
everyone's awareness about the danger of mold."
Teachers filed no mold-related workman's compensation
claims last school year, he says, though there have been
health complaints from 27 students in the past two years.
Roueche's health surveys show higher numbers. In January,
160 out of 236 students surveyed said they were having health
problems, along with 37 out of 69 teachers, 10 of whom were
"It would have been easier and cheaper to tear down the
school and build a new one," says state Rep. Bob Leach, of
South Carolina's 21st District. He says construction of an
entirely new school has been pushed up from 2008 to 2003.
But in the meantime, Roueche wonders, what will become of
the Eastside kids -- especially her own daughter, Kimberly,
now a sophomore there? Kimberly's old symptoms from Buena
Vista came back during her freshman year. "She's had a lot of
problems," Roueche says. "She's had chest pains they think are
related to her pulmonary system."
One night, not too long ago, student Billy Siverling stood
before the county school board and spoke for all the Eastside
students. "We have a great student body and faculty," he said.
"We love Eastside High. But what price can you put on good
health? And how can you raise scores if the very building is
making us sick?"
Arnold Mann, a contributing writer for Time
magazine, also wrote USA WEEKEND's original cover story
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by ALTER IMAGE for USA WEEKEND
by REID HORN for USA WEEKEND
Learn more about mold
Magazine and HGTV.com
join forces to bring you an important chat on indoor air
quality, and more specifically, the effects of mold in the
home. The chat will take place in HGTV.com's chatroom, Sunday,
August 20 at 8:00 p.m. ET, and will feature America's leading
health experts on this topic.
In recent years, comparative risk
studies have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among
the top five environmental risks to public health. The EPA
provides information, guides and tools for your school. http://www.usaweekend.com/00_issues/000820/000820mold.html#
Schools Network, Inc.
This is a nationally known activist group out of Albany,
NY. This group offers a wide range of information about how to
keep schools healthy and will help you communicate with school
American Lung Association to find out how to spot
and treat mold-related respiratory problems: 1-800-LUNG USA
Things you need to know about mold
by Arnold Mann
1. Where mold
Molds grow everywhere, from the surface of Antarctic rocks
to the inside windows of Soviet spacecraft. Molds are a part
of nature. We are exposed to them every day. For most people
molds only become a problem when they start growing indoors
and the air inside a building becomes concentrated with
allergenic spores and mycotoxins, the chemical toxins that
some molds produce.
happens when molds come indoors.
Airborne mold spores coming from outside are not generally
a problem, at least not until they find a damp indoor haven (
a roof or plumbing leak, or high indoor humidity) in which to
start setting up colonies and reproducing. The resulting high
concentration of spores and mycotoxins is recirculated
throughout the building by the HVAC system and can be a
serious health problem, particularly to sensitive or allergic
individuals. The elderly, infants and people who are immune
compromized (people on chemotherapy, AIDS patients,etc.) are
particularly at risk for mold-related health problems.
Most important is that molds need water to grow. Once a
cellulose product like wood, ceiling tile, wallpaper or
wallboard becomes wet, it becomes a mold food source. Without
water, mold cannot survive.
3. What molds
can do to your body
Molds can cause many health problems, including allergic
and toxic reactions. Allergic reactions are much more common,
occurring predominantly among people with a family history of
allergies. Allergic reactions include: asthma attacks, chronic
sinusitis and various other respiratory problems. Recent
studies have also suggested that certain mycotoxin-producing
molds may cause pulmonary hemorrhaging in infants and memory
impairment in older children and adults. The mycotoxins appear
to have toxic effects on the lungs and nervous system, though
doctors are not certain exactly how the damage occurs.
Allergists tests for specific molds are not as useful as
those for pollens, stinging insects, mites and pets because
many molds cross-react with one another, so it is difficult
for doctors to tell which mold is causing the problem.
However, finding which mold you are allergic to is not as
important, experts say, as getting rid of the mold, which will
go a long way in helping solve the problem.
4. How to find
out if mold is living in your home or office
There are numerous ways to test for mold, and no single way
works all the time. If you can see mold, or if there is an
earthy or musty odor, you can assume you have a mold problem.
The first step is to identify the moisture source and correct
it. This can often be done without bringing in experts.
Mold can grow in vast quantities behind walls, and it may
not show up in air sampling, because spores may not be
airborne at the time of sampling. Or some samplers cannot
detect dead spores, which can also be a health threat. But, if
there is mold growth in a building, a knowledgeable
investigator using a good lab can usually detect it. (To find
experts who can test your home for mold, contact the American
Industrial Hygiene Association at
Before hiring a building investigator, ask about their
training in indoor air, particularly in mold sampling. Ask
whether they use an accredited lab, and check their
references. What special training and experience have they
acquired for investigating mold in buildings? How will they
determine if sampling is appropriate? How many types of
samples do they have experience taking? Do they use a
laboratory accredited for environmental microbiology?
Test results should say whether there is evidence of mold
growth in a building and what kinds of mold have been found
rather than providing mold counts, which alone are useless
5. Dead mold
is still dangerous
Dead molds are just as undesirable as live molds; they can
still make you sick. Removing molds (dead and alive) is more
important than killing them.
6. Some molds
are more hazardous than others
Molds that produce mycotoxins, such as Stachybotrys
and Trichoderma, present a greater hazard than common
allergenic molds like Cladosporium and
Alternaria. Health effects will vary with the specific
toxin, the concentration in the air and the age and general
health of the patient.
7. You can
keep mold out
Mold growth and the illnesses associated with it can be
prevented by keeping buildings and the air in them dry --
ideally, indoor relative humidity should be kept below 60
percent. A dehumidifier will keep the humidity in the air low,
but if it is not cleaned frequently, it can become a source of
mold contamination itself. Any significant areas of mold
growth found inside a building should be removed, not just
killed, by trained individuals wearing proper protective
clothing and equipment. The larger the area, the more caution
8. Molds are
useful organisms.Together with bacteria, they
are responsible for breaking down organic matter. They are
among the principal micro-organisms involved in
biodeterioration, which gives us compost and many other useful
9. Molds make
up 25 percent of the biomass of the earth.
10. Molds have
been causing humans grief since time began.The
book of Genesis actually gives instructions as to how mold
growth indoors should be handled and controlled.