Area officials tackling mold concerns

Ashley Rowland
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 mold.

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 of Florida.

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.
Police headquarters
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 system.

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."

County schools
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 sick.

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 and tear.

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 them ill.

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.

Insurers' burden
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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