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Mold Matters

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Sunday, April 15, 2001

Mold gains notice as growing health hazard

Reports of related illnesses rise in area schools, homes

By Michael D. Clark

The Cincinnati Enquirer

UNION TOWNSHIP — One evening last summer after watering the lawn around his Clermont County home, John Maxwell stored the hose in his garage without completely turning off the faucet.

A seemingly minor mistake, it would have profound consequences for his family.

The hose later burst, showering the walls and ceiling. Days later he noticed small blotches of mold, but cleaned up the visible growth and didn't give it further thought.

[photo] John and Christina Maxwell and their daughters, Shannon, 9, and Corinna, 8, have been living in a Days Inn hotel room for more than a week while their house is rid of mold that had caused illness in their family members.

But six months later, his wife, Christina, and two young daughters began suffering a series of headaches and lingering illnesses. Recent testing confirmed the family's fear: Their home was inundated with dangerously high levels of mold spores.

The potential health hazards of mold from slight water damage, pipe leaks or basement flooding has become more evident recently in Greater Cincinnati.

And state officials say the problem is growing.

“Mold is one of the major health crises of this decade,” said Mandy Burkett, an epidemiologist and chief of the Indoor Environmental Section of the Ohio Department of Health.

Ms. Burkett said officials at the department's Indoor Environmental Section now report an average of 30 phone calls per week about mold problems from around the state, a 150 percent increase from four years ago.

High-profile reports of mold problems locally are also on the rise, with school officials from Sycamore and Milford school districts recently ordering schools closed temporarily after discovering mold infestation.

Princeton school district officials are embroiled in a controversy that has some teachers and parents of Robert E. Lucas Intermediate School accusing district officials of knowingly leaving a water-damaged carpet in a classroom almost a year after mold experts and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) advised them to remove it. Princeton officials dispute claims of mold infestationand related illnesses among teachers and students, but have responded by conducting further air-quality testing. Results from the tests are being awaited.

In February, University Hospital officials discovered evidence of the potentially dangerous fungus aspergillis. Hospital officials have temporarily closed a heart transplant facility out of safety concerns.

For the Maxwells, the mold infestation has become a major disruption in their lives. The family is now in the second week of living in a tiny motel room as mold remeditation experts gut their home, tearing out walls, support beams and flooring. The entire top floor of the $140,000, four-bedroom house has been hermetically sealed as dangerously contaminated, spore-soaked air is cleaned by special equipment.

[photo] Mold remediation experts are gutting the Maxwells' Union Township home in Clermont County to rid it of a mold contamination.

Eventually, they estimate, the cost for all the work and reconstruction of their home's interior will reach $40,000, which they expect will be covered by their homeowners insurance.

Christina Maxwell worries less about the money and more about whether she and her husband acted soon enough.

“I'm wondering what kind of damage has been done to our kids. It's very frightening,” Ms. Maxwell said.

Symptoms of mold exposure can duplicate allergic and asthmatic responses, or in some cases expand into severe and chronic illnesses, such as blinding headaches, shortness of breath, burning eyes, sinus and respiratory infections, rashes, severe itching, dizziness, memory loss and fatigue. In rare cases, mold causes pulmonary fibrosis, which kills by choking off lung capacity.

Lisa Roselli, co-owner of Remodel & Restoration Masters Inc., said mold complaints are increasing in Greater Cincinnati.

Customers of the company's mold-remediation service have increased 30 percent during the last three years, and Ms. Roselli expects more business to come.

“People are becoming aware of mold these days, and they're becoming more educated about it,” she said.

Ms. Burkett agreed, and also predicted that as the medical industry becomes more educated, doctors will be able to better confirm serious mold-related illnesses and that mold “will be found responsible for more (deaths).”

"Very controversial'

Ken Martinez, supervisor industrial hygienist for the Cincinnati office of NIOSH, agreed, saying “mold growth can become deadly.”

But Mr. Martinez said the wider impact on public health is manifesting itself in less deadly ways.

“Asthma and allergies are on the rise in our country, and indoor mold is one of the major causes,” he said. But he added that the complex ramifications of mold infestations are far from being understood.

“This is a very controversial area, and we are still learning,” Mr. Martinez.

A 1994 Harvard University School of Public Health study of 10,000 homes in the United States and Canada found half had “conditions of water damage and mold associated with a 50 to 100 percent increase in respiratory symptoms.”

There are no state or federal guidelines regarding potential health effects of mold exposure — though California legislators are considering establishing such guidelines.

Some health departments and municipalities, such as New York City, have created guidelines for mold testing and remediation, but most health departments lack all but general mold guidelines. Moreover, centralized recording of mold incidents is rare.

Newer, airtight buildings might save money on heating and cooling, but should air ducts develop mold, it means contaminated air is recirculated.

According to officials from the National Center for Environmental Health, many modern building materials, if exposed to moisture, can quickly become breeding grounds for mold.

Imitation stucco, if wet, becomes mold food, as do wet cellulose materials, drywall, wallpaper, carpeting, fabric, paper products, ceiling tiles, wood and wood products.

Despite the expense and inconvenience, Mr. Maxwell said he doesn't regret taking the elaborate precaution to rid his home of mold.

“The reason we are doing all this is we don't want to take any chance on anyone else in our family getting seriously sick,” said Mr. Maxwell.