Anyone east of the Rockies will tell you this has been a wet year. It wasn’t just that Hurricanes Florence and Michael soaked parts of the South. It wasn’t just that this year’s drenching storms were numerous and tracked unusually far north (one, Alberto, made a historic appearance all the way up in Michigan).
It was also that the rest of the Eastern Seaboard just simply got wetter. In Wilmington, N.C., 60 inches of rain broke an annual record set in 1966. Around Scranton, Pa., rainfall broke a 1945 record. Wisconsin, Colorado and Maryland all saw 1-in-1,000-year rainfall events. And dozens of locations, like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Charleston, W.Va., had their second- or third-wettest summers on record.
In some houses, mold spores are nothing more than a nuisance—staining furniture or making the basement smell funny. But in other homes they can put people in the hospital or even kill them. Many molds are associated with allergy or asthma attacks; some have been linked to serious complications in immune-compromised populations, and cancer. It is hard to say just yet how much the latest wet year has affected people’s respiratory systems, but it is certainly already hitting their pocketbooks.
“This year there’s just a lot of mold tests being done,” says Michael Berg, the laboratory director for EMLab P&K, one of the biggest U.S. mold-testing companies. He says staffing has become a challenge after two hurricanes and relentless storms along the Eastern Seaboard: “We are struggling, as far as having enough hands on deck in a year like this.”
As climate change and CO2 emissions continue to shape life on Earth, we may be seeing a lot more flooding—with higher sea levels and more powerful storms. In some ways this year might be a glimpse into a wet and moldy future. But what will that mean in practical terms?
Modelling the effects of climate change and rising CO2 levels is notoriously difficult, and even more so when it comes to the diverse world of fungi. It is a little like asking, “How will climate change affect animals?”—some may benefit while others suffer. In some cases the heat will make for fertile breeding grounds for fungi. In others the additional CO2 might irritate them, thereby prompting them to release more spores. “It’s a stress response. The fungus wants to survive, and the way it tries to survive is to produce more offspring—and that means more spores,” says Naresh Magan, a mycologist at England’s Cranfield University. Aspergillus fumigatus, a member of what is perhaps the most common genus of mold to irritate humans, seems to release far more spores when scientists raise it in warmer, CO2-rich enclosures. Other researchers have suggested that increased CO2 might create more leaf litter—where a lot of mold grows when it is not in your house—adding much-needed nitrogen for fungi.
And the spores they produce might be more harmful. In addition to the number of spores a mold puts out, evidence suggests higher CO2 might change the spores themselves. Some mold spores are more than eight times more allergenic today than in pre-industrial times (though it is not clear this trend will be maintained as CO2 levels continue to rise).
Scientists are not completely certain as to how this works. Unlike plants—which breathe in CO2 and can benefit from its increase—fungi take in oxygen, so changes in the chemistry of their spores may be due to some kind of secondary effect. Experts have suggested that more CO2 can lead to more acidic soil or indirectly change fungi respiration. Or there might be some unknown mechanism that causes different responses in different molds. Whatever that mechanism might be, higher CO2 somehow triggers the more allergenic proteins in many molds—which may be why so many more people are allergic to mold today than in generations past.
But not all fungi react the same way to environmental changes. Experiments suggest Alternaria—a genus of mold that causes respiratory problems and is often found in spoiled crops and houses—may actually decrease the allergens in its spores in a warmer, higher-CO2 world. In many cases, it is not clear what chemicals cause adverse health effects from mold spores, let alone how they will respond to a changing climate and atmosphere.
Magan has exposed many types of mold to different levels of CO2, heat and moisture. He says molds such as Stachybotrys—a dangerous group often referred to as “black mold”—might become less allergenic as CO2 increases. But when Aspergillus species are put in a higher CO2 environment, they increase production of aflatoxin B1, a potent cancer-causing chemical that the mold can deposit on some types of produce and livestock feed.
Some of these effects will change, Magan says, as molds adapt and mutate. This might mean the molds will adjust to the stress of climate change—but it could also mean they will adjust to how we treat them. The human body is an excellent place for molds to grow, but most people’s bodies are able to fight them off (though we might start coughing or get runny noses in the process). But in people with compromised immune systems—after stem cell therapy or an organ transplant, for example—Aspergillus can be lethal. Studies have documented an increasing ability among such molds to resist medical treatments including triazole, the most potent anti-fungal in such cases, even in patients who have never taken the drug.
Another problem with mold today is that many energy-efficient homes are designed to capture and conserve heat—which means they can also trap moisture and prevent ventilation, Magan adds. Heat and moisture create a perfect environment for mold. In a bitter irony, architects battling the very things that encourage molds globally may be making them more comfortable in your basement.
But people living in modern, energy-efficient homes are not the ones likely to suffer most from the long-term effects of mold. As is often the case with climate change and rising CO2 levels, the repercussions will likely be worst among the poor, especially in underdeveloped economies where many people cannot purge moisture and mold from their houses.
“With asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, it’s a vicious cycle. [Patients] go and get medication and they feel a little bit better, but they come back into the same home environment,” says Maureen Lichtveld, a global health professor at Tulane University who works with marginalized communities in the Caribbean region as well as the U.S. Southeast.
Lichtveld studies many forms of disease that follow disaster and climate change, but she finds mold especially frustrating because it is highly preventable and relatively easy to control in the home. And if it is not removed, mold can exacerbate chronic asthma and other diseases and stunt a child’s learning and growth. In Puerto Rico asthma was already 23 percent higher than on the mainland—with twice as many asthma-related deaths—before Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the island in 2017. Many reports suggest it has spiked since then, though objective numbers are not yet available.
In places such as South Florida, where seasonal flooding is common, the mold remediation business has become especially competitive, according to Berg. In other places hit by hurricanes or heavy rains, residents might be facing mold problems for the first time. But whether from flooding, increased spore output or changes in how it functions, mold is likely to become a bigger part of our lives.
Tips* for avoiding the effects of airborne mold spores:
Dorms are being deep cleaned at the University of Maryland, as students are growing increasingly concerned that mold problems may be linked to the death of a freshman. According to Fox News reporting, Olivia Paregol, 18, died from the same rare virus that killed 11 children in a New Jersey healthcare facility.
Paregol developed a cough, which later worsened to pneumonia. She died from adenovirus on Nov. 18 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. This is less than three weeks after the school learned she had the illness. The university has since said five more students have illnesses tied to the same rare virus.
Some students said they found mold on their shoes and clothes in their dorm back in August — and believes the fungus caused them to fall ill. After they repeatedly alerted university officials, about 500 students were moved to temporary housing while the school worked to clean the dorms.
Paregol – who suffered from Crohn’s disease and a weakened immune system – lived in Elkton Hall, one of the dorms evacuated for cleaning.
Dr. David McBride, head of the university’s campus health center, said the university has stepped up the cleaning efforts and is on high alert.
Earlier this year these same dorms were involved in a study that looked at how influenza spread in close quarters.
The Adams County district on Friday announced that the start of classes was being moved up three weeks as a result of a mold concern in all buildings.
The first day of school, which had previously been set for Aug. 21, will now be Sept. 4.
“I apologize for the short notice, but we have recently confirmed the need to delay the start of the school year in order to allow the district to bring professionals to clean all buildings and ventilation systems prior to accepting staff and students,” said district Superintendent Karen Kugler.
In a press release, Kugler explained that according to the environmental health contractors, mold is common in homes and commercial buildings, especially big buildings like schools.
Record amounts of rainfall this summer, may have contributed to the situation, she noted.
“It’s really difficult to keep an exact balance with the HVAC system so you don’t get conditions where you get condensation and other conditions conducive to mold growth,” Kugler stated.
She added that she has no doubt that the district will be able to stay on schedule and open in the first week of September.
“They are sure they can get it fixed so we can get kids in here where they belong,” Kugler said.
Symptoms of mold allergies include runny nose, post-nasal drip, coughing and wheezing. In some cases, mold can cause more serious problems, such as strong allergic reactions in the lungs or sinuses and hypersensitivity pneumonitis — an inflammation of the lungs.
Other health problems associated with mold include toxic mold syndrome and sick building syndrome.
At least 15 residents in a West Los Angeles apartment complex were forced out of their homes after asbestos exposure.
The incident happened around 9:48 p.m. in the 1800 block of Prosser Avenue, when authorities determined that 11 of 12 units in the complex were exposed to asbestos. A county hazmat team was sent to the complex and the residents were evacuated.
The residents were decontaminated by Los Angeles Fire Department crews. Officials said no one showed or mentioned signs of illness or injury from the possible exposure.
Residents living in the complex said it all could have been prevented. They said management had been doing some renovations after a tenant moved out and that the contractor doing work did not remove the popcorn ceiling properly, resulting in the health scare.
“Most property owners know that when you’re doing construction you have to do it properly and dispose of it properly. Unfortunately, they just hired whoever. They took it off and disposed of it in our dumpster and exposed us all for the last few weeks to asbestos,” Shannon Streger said.
The hazmat team will determine if the building should be red-tagged. Any vehicles parked in the complex were also taped off and could not be removed.
Residents were provided temporary lodging by the American Red Cross. They thanked the organization for the help and also the city for its prompt response to the situation.
The rise of sustainability in institutional and commercial facilities has created a host of challenges for managers in these facilities. Not the least of these challenges is striking a balance between building design and operation decisions that are environmentally friendly but that also are practical. Designs and operation decisions that tilt too far in one direction tend to create unforeseen problems that divert valuable resources from other areas of the facility. Consider the case of Apple’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Winter has struck the store, and the hysteria has begun. With icicles dangling from the store’s ultrathin carbon fiber roof and caution signs and yellow tape cordoning off sections of the store’s outdoor plaza, internet commentators rushed to the judgment that the store is poorly designed for the city in which it sits, according to an article in The Chicago Tribune.
Writes blogger Matt Maldre, “Maybe next time Apple will consider the actual community where their stores are built. Y’know, basic things like in Chicago, the weather gets cold. It snows. The snow falls off the roof. Don’t design a sloping roof where the snow can’t be caught or guttered off somewhere.”
Read: Building design for productivity and sustainability
Point taken. But let’s put this in perspective. Winter happens. And architects often aren’t prepared for it. Such shortcomings undercut their achievements and their credibility as problem-solvers. Yet the faults do not altogether vanquish the value of their designs.
By the myopic standard of the commentators, Frank Gehry’s snaking BP Bridge in Millennium Park is a failure. The bridge has a wood deck. In the past, when snow piled up on it, it had to be closed lest the metal blades of city snow plows gouge holes in its forgiving wood surface. Substitute concrete for wood on Gehry’s bridge and you would have a far more ordinary span. It would be open 365 days a year, but the journey across it would be less easy on the feet and less lifting to the spirit.
Learn more about the role of sustainability in resilient facility design.
There are times when it is advisable to bend the narrow rule of form following function in favor of a broader perspective that considers the trade-off between the two and how that trade-off affects what ultimately counts — how buildings and the rest of the built environment shape human experience.
Not that getting conked on the head with the icicle is acceptable. Apple spokesman Nick Leahy says the building’s architects, London-based Foster + Partners, had designed the glass-walled store with winter in mind but had been foiled by a technical malfunction.
“The roof has a warming system that’s built into it,” he says. “It needed some fine-tuning, and it got re-programmed today. It’s hopefully a temporary problem.”
In its 16th year now, National Healthy Schools Day seeks to inform the public of health risks that can affect children in educational and child care settings
April 3, 2018, Clearwater FL — The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that 50% of all schools have problems with indoor air quality (IAQ). IAQ issues can be comprised of a complex mix of sources including aging facility infrastructure, deferred maintenance, fouled HVAC systems, dirty ducts, and the use of toxic products for cleaning, among other contributing factors. Every year since 2002, National Healthy Schools Day mission is to inform the administrators and public on these vital issues in an effort to bring awareness and change to the maintenance and safety of educational institutions across the country. The EPA urges schools to “Use the day to take the necessary steps to effectively manage the indoor air quality in your schools, ensuring you are providing your students and staff with a healthy learning environment.”
The focus of National Healthy Schools Day 2018is lead. According to the EPA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the American Academy of Pediatrics there is no safe level of lead for any child. Like many other indoor environmental hazards common to schools, lead has long been ignored. However, more schools and child care facilities are becoming more proactive on lead, especially in drinking water. But the fact remains that lead is ubiquitous throughout an educational environment such as in building and instructional materials, as well as other products and even the soil on the property’s grounds.
“It is time to put children first and end lead and other risks to all children in school and child care,” said Claire Barnett, Executive Director of Healthy Schools Network, the national not-for-profit that co-founded and hosts Healthy Schools Day. She added, “For the 16th annual Day, we thank all the education and health leaders and staff in the states who have recognized the high cost of lead and other toxics to the future of children and are taking action to find and to reduce risks in school and child care settings.”
The good news is more and more people are becoming aware of the importance of optimal IAQ in the learning environment. This year a record number of 59 NGOs nationwide are engaged in the event.
Who is most affected?
Across the U.S. over 55 million children and 7 million adults occupy 130,000 public and private schools. Add to that another 11 million children in child care facilities. All totaled, over 1/5 of the U.S. population is in one of these institutions on a daily basis. Today there are fewer public schools than in year’s past, but more children in them and with less federal and state funding. Schools in disadvantaged communities are often in the worst condition from an architectural and infrastructure standpoint. This can likely correlate to these facilities having the most lead in their buildings’ paint and water systems.
What can be done to improve IAQ?
The first step to finding and fixing IAQ issues is to have a proactive administrative and facilities team willing to invest in the building health of their education institutions. This means having their facilities regularly tested, not just for lead but for the myriad of factors that can deteriorate the health of the indoor environment.
“One of our main focuses has been creating healthy learning environments so students can achieve higher academic learning in healthy buildings,” says Alan Wozniak, President of Pure Air Control Services, Inc., “Our Building Sciences team is constantly working with both k-12 and higher education institutions to proactively test and report on the IAQ in their facilities. If issues are found, the detailed reports provided are integral in the remediation process to get the building back to an optimal state of operations and a healthy learning environment.”
IAQ testing can encompass the entire building envelope or concentrate on a specific area on interest in a forensic level investigation of an issue. In the case of lead, water, surface and air samples can be taken from the indoor environment and sent to a laboratory for in-depth analysis. The lab can then qualify and quantify what is in the samples to help determine the severity of the issue in the specific locations where the samples were collected. Of course if concentrations are found and report the proper corrective remediation actions must be taken.
IAQ testing can also be conducted for other issues that can affect the health of a building and its occupants. Things like bacteria, dust mites, fungi (mold) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can all proliferate in the indoor environment. They often act as allergy and asthma triggers which can affect student performance and attendance. Dust and debris built up inside of the HVAC system not only contributes to these allergen triggers, but also can decrease the performance of the equipment which can lead higher humidity and CO2 levels within a building. Not to mention higher energy costs.
National Healthy Schools Day is an important advocacy event that helps bring awareness to the importance of good IAQ for educational institutions throughout the U.S. With this in mind, more schools should be encouraged to take a proactive approach to their indoor environment to ensure healthy facilities for their students and staff all year long.