An Unwelcome Surprise

Feb. 1, 2002
Do you have toxic mold hiding in your school? Here's how to handle it.

Exposure to mold, especially toxic mold, has become a ticking time bomb at schools and universities. Its impact looms larger than asbestos, lead or radon problems uncovered in years past.

Millions of students and faculty already are at risk to mold exposure. Mold contamination has resulted in school closings, student relocations and millions of dollars in cleanup costs. More than one in five of the nation's public schools have reported problems with indoor air quality, and more than half of those problems have been linked to mold and mildew. Last year, St. Charles East High School in St. Charles, Ill., was closed after toxic mold was found. Most of the school's 2,300 students have been relocated to mobile classrooms at a nearby middle school. The St. Charles school system is expected to spend more than $11 million on cleanup and repair.

Sky-high litigation costs also are a possibility, as juries have returned record-setting damage awards in residential and commercial cases. On the heels of a precedent-setting $32 million award to a woman in a Texas lawsuit against Farmers Insurance, more than 150 families are suing the Henry Phipps Plaza housing complex in New York City to the tune of $12 billion. They contend that exposure to toxic mold is responsible for health complaints ranging from headaches, nosebleeds, and chronic fatigue to respiratory problems and death.

A national problem

Across the nation, the public has become more aware of the threat of toxic mold. Recently, California's Gov. Gray Davis has responded to the groundswell of health concerns surrounding mold by signing the Toxic Mold Protection Act. It directs state health officials to set exposure limits for schools, homes, businesses and public buildings.

The law, which took effect in January, also requires landlords and real-estate owners to disclose when mold limits are exceeded. The message is clear: school and university administrators may no longer ignore toxic mold. Yet the problem of proliferating toxic mold has caught many school administrators unprepared; many have no plan for handling mold problems.

Until recently, school and university administrators have tended to view mold remediation as a simple task best done by in-house staff. But as the full extent of health, liability and property risk unfolds, many are looking to mold-remediation professionals so that a small problem doesn't grow into a large one.

If schools have just a few square feet of visible mold, they may be tempted to have in-house staff tackle the problem, but that can be a costly mistake. Without adequate precautions, maintenance personnel may open up a wall and expose themselves and the building occupants to unknown types and quantities of hidden mold. That could release mold spores into the air and ventilation systems, and spread mold growth throughout the building.

According to a 1999 Mayo Clinic study, nearly 37 million Americans endure chronic sinus problems because of mold. But the effects of toxic mold can be much worse than that of simple mold allergy. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has spent $3.17 million on mold research in an effort to remove mold from the homes of infants at risk of asthma and acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage, which can cause bleeding in the lungs.

Mold, of course, has been around for ages, but the current toxic mold epidemic has modern roots. Changes in building design from the 1970s onward have exacerbated today's toxic mold crisis. The drive toward energy efficiency had the unintended effect of sealing off airflow so moisture does not evaporate well. Also, building materials are now more cellulose-based, and mold thrives on the higher paper content. Unchecked growth can be devastating. In large school sites, the liability and property damage can be astounding, because mold may stay hidden longer and has more room to grow.

Steps toward remediation

A four-step approach for school and university administrators can help combat a mold problem: solve the water problem, get the mold tested, possibly vacate people who have mold sensitivity, then get professional remediation help.

A skilled toxic-mold remediator can help prevent potentially severe health problems and costly litigation. Remediation cleans or removes contaminated materials and prevents mold from spreading to other areas while protecting the health of abatement workers.

Proactive remediation is recommended. Mold can destroy whatever it grows on, and can take hold in as little as 24 to 48 hours when exposed to excessive moisture. Ceiling tile, carpet, drywall, insulation and other common building materials are likely sources for mold. It can spread rapidly because its spores surround everything and are carried from place to place by air currents and ventilation equipment.

According to the New York City Department of Health's Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments, “Building materials supporting fungal growth must be remediated as rapidly as possible to ensure a healthy environment.”

Reputable mold remediators should possess one of two certifications: certified microbial remediation supervisor (CMRS) from the American Indoor Air Quality Association (AMIAQ); or the certified microbial remediator (CMR) from the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA). Beyond these certifications, ask for a list of references, then follow up to see how previous projects went.

Also, experienced professional mold remediators should carry multi-million-dollar liability insurance to protect the client if liability gets out of hand. They also should follow OSHA and other specified safety protocols to protect the health and safety of the mold remediators and building occupants. This can minimize liability risk.

The New York City Department of Health recommends the following minimum precautions for remediation work:

  • For small isolated areas, such as ceiling tiles or small areas on walls, use respiratory protection in accordance with OSHA standards, as well as gloves and eye protection; use dust suppression before remediation; work in an unoccupied area; and vacate people with depressed immune systems or inflammatory lung diseases, such as asthma, from adjacent areas.

  • For mid-sized isolated areas, such as individual wallboard panels, follow the above precautions, plus: seal the work area with plastic sheets to contain dust and debris before remediation; vacuum the work area using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter; and clean the work area with a detergent solution.

  • For large isolated areas, such as several wallboard panels, consult experienced health and safety professionals for microbial investigation before remediation; train personnel to handle hazardous materials, and equip them with respiratory protection that meets OSHA standards; seal ventilation ducts in work and adjacent areas with plastic sheeting.

  • For extensive contamination, including that in HVAC systems, follow the above precautions plus monitor air to determine safety; completely isolate the work area and ventilation ducts from occupied spaces; use an exhaust fan with a HEPA filter to generate negative pressurization; provide airlocks and a decontamination room; equip personnel trained in handling hazardous materials with full-face respirators with HEPA cartridges, disposable gloves and protective clothing covering head and shoes; and use biocides in HVAC systems.

To create good will with students, faculty members and the public, and for legal protection, it also is important to disclose large-scale toxic-mold remediation, along with a description of the remedial measures to be taken with a timetable for completion.

It also is essential for the remediator to deal with safety and potential liability issues, as well as insurance remediation protocols.

Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, Calif. PDG Environmental, Inc., Pittsburgh, a national environmental remediation contractor, assisted with the article.


  • 37 MILLION

    Number of Americans who endure chronic sinus problems because of mold.
    Source: 1999 Mayo Clinic study

  • $11 MILLION

    Amount the St. Charles, Ill., school system is paying for repair and cleanup of mold contamination at a high school.

  • 1 IN 5

    Number of U.S. schools that have reported problems with indoor air quality.

  • 24 TO 48

    Number of hours it takes for some mold to take hold and begin growth.

SIDEBAR: Got mold?

Any structure with water leaks, water damage or a history of such is at risk of developing toxic mold. High humidity increases the risk, and a musty odor or drywall discoloration after water-damage repair are telltale signs of mold growth. Of course, sudden student or faculty respiratory problems or complaints of ill health also may be a clue that toxic mold is present and must be remediated.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, schools should consider a number of questions before remediating toxic mold:

  • Are there existing moisture problems in the building?

  • Have building materials been wet more than 48 hours?

  • Are there hidden sources of water, or is the humidity too high (high enough to cause condensation)?

  • Are building occupants reporting musty or moldy odors?

  • Are building occupants reporting health problems?

  • Are building materials or furnishings visibly damaged?

  • Has maintenance been delayed or the maintenance plan been altered?

  • Has the building been remodeled recently, or has building use changed?

  • Is consultation with medical or health professionals indicated?

Even when mold growth is not obvious, professional inspection is prudent because growth often occurs out of sight: in walls, ductwork and ventilation systems, as well as in crawl spaces beneath floorboards and above ceilings.

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