Mold in schools: ‘We’re just more scared of it’

Mold in schools: ‘We’re just more scared of it’

Source: https://www.pennlive.com, September 8, 2018

Mold has once again disrupted the start of school at assorted Harrisburg region schools.

The unusually wet, humid weather — ideal for mold — is the main reason for the outbreaks. But it’s also likely greater awareness and concern about mold has fueled the decisions to shut down classrooms and buildings, and in some cases cancel school, for removal of mold and subsequent testing to make sure it’s gone.

“We’re just more scared of it than we’ve been in the past,” said Dr. Randy Young, director of the division of pulmonology, allergy and critical care medicine at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “I think there’s probably a new level of concern that, frankly, is a little controversial.”

Young doesn’t blame school officials for their reactions to mold; he would want a mold outbreak addressed at a school his child attended, he said.

Still, mold isn’t considered a major health threat for most people. Some people are sensitive to it, suffering congestion, coughing, eye watering and other symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, it “remains pretty controversial” whether mold is a significant health concern for people who aren’t especially sensitive to it, Young said.

In fact, there’s concern an overly-clean environment poses a threat of its own.

Young points to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which holds that an overly-clean environment lacking in things like mold can actually harm the health of young people. The belief is that germs and fungi play a role in enabling the immune system to fully develop, and not being exposed to those things leads to a weak immune system.

“There are all kinds of unanswered questions about the affect of the environment … including mold exposure on our respiratory health,” Young said.

Eric Mercer agrees school officials have become more concerned about mold and are on the lookout for it. He’s the principle scientist for Aesther Assessments, which tests for mold at Harrisburg region schools and advises them on how to address outbreaks.

“Unfortunately mold is everywhere. The nutrients mold needs to survive are contained in most of our building materials,” Mercer said.

That means mold can grow on many items and surfaces within a school, such as walls, ceiling tile, carpets, upholstery and wooden furniture. The other needed ingredient is water.

Typically, mold outbreaks are triggered by things such as water leaks, condensation, high humidity or cleaning practices that involve too much water, according to Mercer, who declined to discuss mold problems at specific schools.

He said one way a school can reduce the likelihood of mold is to keep the humidity level at about 65 percent or lower.

Mercer said schools in some cases can handle a mold situation with its own staff, but often need the help of outside professionals. The process involves removing the mold by wiping surfaces and using vacuums with special filters. In some cases materials such as ceiling tiles must be thrown away.

One of the challenges of addressing mold outbreaks is finding and removing unseen mold in places such as inside walls, Mercer said.

In the West Shore School District, two middle schools were unable to open until late this week because of mold.

On Friday, Lenkersville Elementary School in northern Dauphin County was closed as the result of “a mold-like substance” being found in a custodial closet on Thursday. The district said it consulted a professional and quickly remediated the problem. However, school officials closed the building on Friday to allow air quality testing.

Mill Road Elementary School near Elizabethtown in Dauphin County also was closed Friday after discovery of mold. School officials didn’t immediately know how long it would take to address the problem.

In late August, an annual test of the air quality at Camp Hill Middle School/High School in Cumberland County detected “slight elevation” of Aspergillus-Penicillium, a common form of mold, on one classroom. The district said it dealt with the problem through steps including using a HEPA air filter in the room, cleaning all surfaces including undersides of chairs and shelfs, and lowering the humidity level throughout the building. The district said there was no need to close the building.

East Pennsboro Area School District in Cumberland County experienced major disruptions related to mold in recent years. In 2016, the district had to shut down several schools for extended periods. Much of the problem was related to air conditioner malfunctions resulting in moisture buildups.

The unusually wet summer and excessively humid weather in late August and early September are blamed for the recent rash of mold outbreaks.

School officials have been forced to explain why the problems don’t seem to turn up until the start of a new school year. They’ve responded that the outbreaks often occur in places that haven’t been used over the summer, and that an outbreak can flare up within 72 hours if it’s extremely humid.

Some officials have promised to revise policies to make sure all parts of schools are regularly inspected for mold over the summer.

Some experts believe the likelihood of mold outbreaks has increased as the result of modern buildings being more tightly sealed, and thus more likely to trap moisture that will fuel mold growth. They further say budget constraints and resulting maintenance cutbacks might play a role.

Regardless of the health impacts of mold, school officials have little choice but to address outbreaks. That’s because the bigger issue is often to fix the leak or other malfunction that’s causing the moisture. Also, mold feeds on the surfaces on which it lives, potentially causing structural damage.

Mercer, the remediation expert, wouldn’t give figures, but said dealing with mold costs “more than a little.” He said it costs more than standard renovation, because the people who do it have special training and use specialized equipment.

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