Area officials tackling mold concerns
Sun staff writer
The black slime under your sink is becoming your insurance agent's biggest nightmare.
Across the country, insurance companies and health officials say they've watched
complaints about mold - a fungus that can cause health problems ranging from
stuffy noses to asthma - surge during the past year.
It's a problem that's causing headaches for local officials now.
In Gainesville, the city is set to begin a $90,000 project this week to mold-proof
its leaky police department building.
The Alachua County School Board is overseeing the replacement of several portable
classrooms at one school after tests revealed it had high concentrations of
School administrators also are facing complaints from teachers in other schools
who say rot and mildew are making them sick.
Mold has always been present, especially in Florida's humid climate, but it's
getting more attention thanks to a wave of multimillion-dollar lawsuits and
high-profile stories about families forced to flee from mildew-ridden homes.
"It's been here all along. It's just the fact that people are getting
more and more aware," said James Kimbrough, a mold specialist at the University
He said television programs and news media reports have created a panic about
"deadly mold" that releases carcinogens and can cause life-threatening
illnesses. While toxic mold does grow in rare circumstances, he said most mold
won't kill you.
But it can make some people sick.
At the Gainesville Police Department headquarters on NW 6th Street, employees
have begun spotting black mold behind peeling wallpaper throughout the building.
Piecemeal repairs have been made, but the city is set to begin a thorough
renovation this week.
"There's been mold at GPD for decades," said Capt. Sadie Darnell,
one of two GPD employees who have filed workers' compensation claims against
the city because of mold-induced illnesses.
Darnell, who said she suffered from asthma until receiving years of shots,
said a number of other GPD employees have had similar respiratory problems but
didn't realize mold was growing in their workplace.
"It's hard to say how many employees are affected, because a number of
them have retired because this has been going on for decades," she said.
According to GPD officials, the problem began 20 years ago when additions
were made to GPD headquarters. Even though the building's architect pushed for
a new building in the early 1980s, the city decided to gut the original building
and add new sections.
The reconstruction left gaps that let moisture seep into the building's walls,
creating an ideal place for mold to grow.
Five months ago, the mold forced Gainesville Police Chief Norman Botsford
and his administrative assistant to relocate to a conference room for about
a month while their offices were gutted and the drywall replaced.
"I think we just discovered the full extent of it when we found it in
the chief's office," City Manager Wayne Bowers said.
A "significant portion" of the building is scheduled to be mold-proofed
during the next six months - a process that includes removing the wallpaper,
bleaching the walls, putting an antimicrobial sealant on the walls, installing
dehumidification units and placing ultraviolet lights in the air-conditioning
Bowers said it will cost $90,000 to clean up the building, but other officials
have said it may cost more.
"This mold has been growing in this building for the last 20 years, and
it's pretty much permeated the entire building," said Lt. Tim Good, who
oversees GPD repair and maintenance. "We've had a lot of people with respiratory
problems over the years. It may not have caused them, but it could potentially
make them worse."
At Alachua County schools, teachers say they've complained for years about musty
smells and mold problems. And some teachers say it's made them and their students
Now, four portable classrooms at the Horizon Center suspected of having mold
and mildew problems are being replaced with freshly refurbished units. School
officials, however, said the units are being replaced because of normal wear
Air samples taken in some of those portables last month showed spore counts
between two and five times what is normal. A Tampa company is doing more extensive
testing on all 27 portables at Horizon.
The results are expected back late this week or early next week, said Ed Gable,
director of maintenance for Alachua County schools.
"This has been a problem in our district over the years," he said.
Former Horizon teacher Cathy Tietjen said not even toilet bowl cleaner or
bleach would wash the thick brown stains of mold, the consistency of chewing
tobacco, from the walls of her portable.
"Every day there would be more and more of it on the wall," said
Tietjen, whose former classroom is one of four being removed from Horizon.
She said the mold caused her severe allergy and asthma problems, which diminished
when she transferred to Fort Clarke Middle School. Her students often complained
their chests hurt during gym classes, or laid their heads on their desks because
they felt sick.
She now blames their illnesses on mold.
"It definitely interfered with teaching," she said. "The kids
were always having asthma troubles, breathing troubles."
Teachers in at least three other schools - Spring Hill Middle School, Eastside
High School and Newberry High School - also have complained about mold.
Jane Gordon, an art teacher at Newberry High School, suffered from such severe
allergy problems that her doctor banned her from working inside the school's
main building. For the past four years, she has taught inside a cramped, 30-year-old
portable, without phone or computer connections.
Gordon blamed her illnesses on "old-fashioned filthy ductwork that can't
be cleaned." She said she's angry because parents are treating their children
for asthma and allergy symptoms without knowing that the school could be making
Even though the school is being renovated, she said the project could take
years and could be put on hold because of funding shortages.
Gable said all claims of mold and mildew problems are being taken seriously,
and are being investigated on a case-by-case basis. School officials will meet,
likely in early January, to develop a policy for handling complaints about indoor
air quality at schools, he said.
Insurance officials say mold claims are spiraling out of control in some states,
and Florida seems to be on the same path.
"There's always something, but this seems to be the latest thing,"
said Sam Miller, vice president of the Florida Insurance Council.
He said insurance rates have skyrocketed in Texas and California in the past
year after a Texas woman won a $32 million lawsuit against her insurance company
last year over mold in her home.
He estimated Florida's two or three largest insurance companies handled 1,000
mold claims each in 2001, compared with maybe 10 claims each the year before.
Miller said insurance companies are asking the state Department of Insurance
to step in and regulate mold claims.
"We believe it's a situation where you have some legitimate claims, but
what's really driving this is some court judgments that's making this the vogue
way to sue insurance companies," he said.
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