In the past several months, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria left paths of destruction worth billions of dollars. The natural disasters destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes, business, schools and other properties across hundreds of square miles of the United States.
Each of these hurricanes brought with it excessive moisture, flooding and standing water. Any of these can result in the growth of mold in homes and other buildings impacted or damaged by the storm. Due to this fact and the scale to which hurricanes and other natural disasters can cause damage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information on the agency’s website specifically warning people to be aware of mold exposure risks following these types of disasters.
The CDC reports that in flooded or water damaged properties that have experienced mold growth, people who are sensitive to mold may experience stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing or skin irritation. People allergic to mold may have difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath. Those with weakened immune systems and with chronic lung diseases, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs if exposed to certain types of mold.
“Whenever returning to a home or business that has been flooded for more than a day or two, it’s important to recognize that mold is likely present and may cause significant exposure concerns,” said Franco Seif, President at Clark Seif Clark. “In almost all circumstances, the only way to prevent mold growth in a water damaged building is to have it thoroughly cleaned up and comprehensively dried within 24 to 48 hours. Unfortunately, following these types of events, that is almost never possible.”
To help in these situations, Clark Seif Clark’s building science and water damage experts provide indoor environmental quality assessments, testing and monitoring services. If mold or other microbial problems are found, CSC provides oversight and post remediation testing to ensure these issues are comprehensively addressed to protect both workers and future building occupants. Clark Seif Clark also recently sponsored an educational video about mold contamination following a natural disaster that can be seen here:
Mold that grows within facilities and goes untreated can trigger asthma and cause a host of health problems for building occupants, including respiratory infections and eye and throat irritations.
When the Philadelphia School District received a report in early October 2017, of “possible mold” at an elementary school, within hours the district closed the school, saying it found “traces of mold” in several classrooms, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Building inspectors found more than 600 square feet of mold in 10 classrooms and an additional 400 square feet of the fungus in 15 other places at a 650-student school, including hallways, bathrooms, and closets.
As far back as 2015, teachers repeatedly alerted district and union officials to mold, leaking pipes, and ventilation problems.
In November 2015, after teachers complained of respiratory problems and illness, the school district and the teachers’ union discovered widespread mold on chairs, desks, and ceiling pipes. It was so extensive in music rooms that the spaces were deemed “unusable,” according to a report prepared by an environmental scientist for the teachers’ union.
District spokesman Kevin Geary said when the district first learned of “some potential issues” with mold, technicians went to investigate within an hour. The problem was caused by heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning malfunctions, he said.
Steps to remediate the mold have been taken by school superintendent William R. Hite Jr. “We will have someone out there ASAP to look into this,” says Hite. “The safety and health of our students and staff is our highest priority,” said Geary. “The School District will not reopen the school until it is mold-free.”
Concerns over mold contamination have led the Monroe Township (N.J.) School District to close all of its schools for the remainder of this week.
WPVI-TV reports that the schools—one high, one middle and four elementary—will be closed so inspections can be completed. The district has about 6,200 students.
The announcement of the closings comes just hours before an emergency school board meeting is to be held regarding the situation.
The situation began with the discovery of mold inside Holly Glen Elementary School. The district closed that campus last Friday and was preparing to split the student body among the three remaining elementary schools.
In light of the additional school closings, plans to have teachers prepare replacement classrooms have been postponed, and an open house for students and parents at their temporary schools also has been canceled.
Last week, the district closed Holly Glen after a consultant, TTI Environmental Inc., found dangerous mold growing throughout the school on doors, desks, book cases, lockers, ceiling tiles and other areas. The consultant recommended that Holly Glen be closed and thoroughly cleaned.
“Based on the information provided and the results of our visual investigation and sampling, TTI recommends that the school be closed until cleaning and additional evaluation be conducted to insure the safety of the children and staff,” the consultant’s report stated.
Parents became more alarmed after learning that mold-infested ceiling tiles were being removed Friday at another school, Williamstown Middle School, while students were still in class.
Mold can be found everywhere, both indoors and outdoors. However, it’s usually not a problem until it begins growing indoors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to mold can cause a number of health effects and symptoms, including allergic reactions, asthma, and other respiratory complaints. Mold can be a serious issue if left untreated, which is perhaps one of the reasons most HVAC contractors tend to avoid it.
“Mold is in virtually every residence over two years old in the U.S. due to improper ventilation and treatment of that ventilated air,” said Joe Kokinda, president and CEO at Professional HVAC/R Services Inc. in Avon, Ohio. “This being stated, one very experienced IAQ [indoor air quality] expert would definitely be required to identify the source and recommend ventilation upgrades. Mold remediation is another issue that HVAC probably would shy away from, just like lead paint or asbestos.”
David Richardson, RNC inside operations manager at Weather Master & Mr. Plumber in Knightdale, North Carolina, said mold is a four-letter word to HVAC contractors.
“Unless you are licensed and certified in mold remediation, it’s in your best interest to have a professional company perform this task,” he said. “Mold can be caused by several contributing factors, and it is wise to have a third party verify where the source of the mold came from before admitting guilt. With homes being built tighter and the lack of fresh air, mold issues seem to be more prevalent today. It only takes three factors to produce mold: moisture; a food source, such as dust or construction debris; and absence of light.”
Richardson said his company prefers to refer clients to a professional mold remediation expert.
“We typically do not get a referral fee, but we use the same company,” he said. “This allows us to have a third party that is going to do a full investigation of the problem and make sure they identify the culprit. Personally, I do not recommend HVAC contractors to investigate the issue if they’re not properly trained and certified as some cases can get costly and may require legal action.”
Martin Hoover, owner of Empire Heating and Air Conditioning in Decatur, Georgia, said he also refers this type of work to other contractors.
“We do provide basic air quality testing and offer solutions relating to dehumidifiers, UV lights, and photocatalytic oxidation as a preventive measure, but we do not participate in remediation once mold has been quantified. We haven’t taken the time to learn that aspect of the business or train and equip our workforce.”
Instead, Hoover has a reciprocal referral arrangement with another contractor to handle those types of services.
“Throughout the years, we’ve developed relationships with high-quality contractors that do this type of work,” he added.
Chris Crawford, general manager of Integrity Comfort Solutions in Conroe, Texas, also has a mutually beneficial arrangement with a local water mitigation and mold remediation specialist, Woodlands, Texas-based Boone’s Restoration Inc.
“We’re very cognizant about making sure we focus on the one thing we’re really good at, and that’s residential HVAC,” Crawford said. “We’re very focused on being the best in our area on the things we know we’re good at. Another reason, at least in Texas, is there are a lot of licensing regulations that cover mold remediation and that type of stuff. We just don’t have that licensing. And, lastly, is the risk exposure to lawsuits and things of that nature. Most liability insurance carriers have an exclusion in their liability insurance for mold development within residential homes. For instance, if we went out and put in an air conditioning system that caused a major water leak in someone’s home and that developed into a major mold issue throughout the house, our liability insurance would not cover any of the damage we happen to do in that home. So, for us to go out and start trying to do that type of work on a regular basis would not be smart, considering we’re not covered under our liability insurance. That’s why we tend to stay out of it. We would rather refer that work out to an expert in that field that has the training, tools, capabilities, and licensing as well as the correct insurance to deal with those types of occurrences.”
“It’s hard to be a jack of all trades,” added Brian Boone, president, Boone’s Restoration Inc. “That’s why you have partnerships with specialists.”
Referrals are a two-way street between the two companies.
“It forms a good, solid relationship between our company and Brian’s company,” Crawford said. “We’re going to be inside a lot of people’s homes this year. Brian’s going to be out in a lot of homes this year, and that gives us a lot of occasions to be able to refer work back and forth to each other. Brian might be in somebody’s house for a water mitigation issue and then happen to notice or talk to the homeowner to find that there is an air conditioning issue, as well. That work gets referred back to us. I also know the type of work Brian’s company does, I know it’s going to be top-notch, and I know my client is going to be taken care of. And, he knows the same thing about us.”
Mold remediation should be handled by experts, said Michael Jacobs, head of public relations for ServiceProsLocal.com.
“Mold is very dangerous and life threatening,” he said. “It is definitely preferable to be taken care of by a company that solely specializes in mold remediation.”
Jacobs added that Service Pros Local receives mold remediation referrals from other companies.
“When customers need something that is beyond the services we provide, we definitely refer them to other companies that cover the customer’s needs and vice versa. These types of agreements are mutually beneficial because you build a strong partnership, which helps to increase the number of customers you work with. Considering that you cooperate with companies that are in a closer niche to your services — like mold remediation and water damage repair — they usually accrue at the same time, and if you don’t cover both aspects, this kind of agreement between companies will definitely help both companies increase the number of customers they may reach.”
Fourteen years after a grand jury ordered Broward schools to take control of the mold consuming its buildings, the district has no way to determine whether all of its students and teachers are breathing clean air.
Broward largely relies on school employees to complain before searching for mold or its causes; inspectors do not routinely follow up to ensure that cleanup measures worked; and no one measures how quickly maintenance teams fix problems that allow mold to grow, a Sun Sentinel analysis found.
The Sun Sentinel reviewed thousands of air quality reports and complaints filed by employees since 2003. It also analyzed a database of work orders over the last two school years.
In those years, the district collected about 4,200 work orders to fix leaky roofs, one of the biggest contributors to mold. Records show about one-third of the completed work orders took at least 90 days to close out and about 100 took at least a year.
In addition, those records show about 25 reports about mold or mildew were still unresolved months to years after they were filed, according to the records.
Confronted with the findings, school officials said the work order records can’t be trusted because the district has never accurately tracked their status in any central system. They also said multiple work orders could be submitted for the same problem. Maintenance staff monitor whether the work is done, they said.
Spokeswoman Tracy Clark said the staff is “committed to constantly looking through” work orders to ensure that staff are responding to problems in a timely manner. Sam Bays, director of physical plant operations, said staff members try to get to problems within a few days.
Whether that’s actually happening, there’s no way to prove.
“The information that you’re trying to extract is information that we would love to extract, but we cannot,” said Leo Bobadilla, chief facilities officer.
Prolonged mold exposure can cause a gamut of problems — from allergies to neurological dysfunction — and is particularly harmful to children.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who are sensitive to molds can develop nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation or skin irritation. People with allergies to mold can develop more severe reactions, and immune-compromised people can suffer serious lung infections if they get exposed to mold.
In 2003, a grand jury slammed the district for an insufficient response to rampant mold problems. It ordered school officials to take a proactive approach to the mold battle, identify the state of the air quality in all of its schools and fix roof leaks and water intrusions as quickly as possible.
“The first priority of any school construction in South Florida should be to keep out the rain. The second should be to make sure the air conditioning systems effectively cool and dehumidify the buildings,” the report said.
But buildings around the district are still beleaguered by roof leaks and air conditioning malfunctions as they wait for the district to begin renovations from 2014 bond money.
As of April, district employees have lodged about 2,800 complaints about air quality since 2003, records show. The records did not always provide detailed descriptions of the problem, but about 230 specifically stated they or their students experienced illness or allergies.
Most of the time, the district’s environmental health team responds to those complaints by checking the room in question and surrounding rooms and closets.
Over the years since the grand jury report, teams documented finding mold about 20 percent of the time that staff searched school rooms. They found excessive humidity or water damage about 35 percent to 40 percent of the time.
Mold grew on students’ desks at Northeast High in Oakland Park, so the inspector advised that custodians wipe the desks with disinfectant and maintenance repair the air conditioner, according to an air quality report from that visit.
Mold sprawled across the entire ceiling in three classrooms at Hallandale High, where the inspector forbid anyone from using the room until a contractor treated it.
It lived in bookshelves at Country Hills Elementary in Coral Springs and chairs at McArthur High in Pembroke Pines. At Gator Run Elementary in Weston, the 99.9 percent humidity level curled papers in one room. Humidity rippled carpeting in a room in Pasadena Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines.
The Broward Teachers Union surveyed about 1,200 of its 11,000 members in April, and 500 indicated that they see doctors to deal with health issues they say they experience at work. (Click here to read all of their descriptions and search by school.)
“If Broward Schools really cared about students, those in charge would never send students to schools with these conditions,” a teacher from Northeast High in Oakland Park wrote in the anonymous survey. “Students are always ill, need to leave class to blow their nose, absent because of chronic sinus infections, constant coughing and congestion, watery eyes and nose, red eye from irritation, nausea, and so on.”
‘We were not aware of who to talk to’
The district typically relies on school employees to report mold or the problems that provoke it before staff investigates for mold. Everyone, including teachers, needs to look out for issues and report them immediately, said Roger Riddlemoser, the environmental health and safety director.
But only about one-quarter of those who told the union they feel sick in their classrooms ever asked the district to check their air quality.
The Broward Teachers Union said teachers are afraid to report problems for fear of retaliation. Matt Decker, a school fire inspector, said principals often don’t want to use the little resources they have to hunt for mold.
District officials insisted that they shouldn’t fear retribution for pointing out problems and said they’re trying to make it easier for teachers to report by launching a webpage where they can file a report without divulging their names. Despite the anonymity, spokeswoman Clark said staff still might need to speak with the person to solve the problem.
Teachers interviewed by the Sun Sentinel said no one told them they could ask staff to check their air and no materials are given to teachers about potential hazards. Riddlemoser acknowledged that the district trained facilities services staff about indoor air quality protocol in June, but not teachers.
Clark said Broward could do a better job reaching out to teachers about air quality problems.
Sandra Nunez said her eyes burned and nose ran during school hours for nine years before she discovered she could ask the district to check her room at Hollywood Central.
“We were not aware of who to talk to,” Nunez said.
Tim McKeever, who got so sick working at McFatter Technical College that he left last year, didn’t initially think to alert management when he noticed mold and water stains in his classroom. A doctor he obtained through a worker’s compensation claim recommended that his classroom be tested for mold.
“You walk by it and you don’t think anything of it until you know how dangerous it is,” he said. “It’s something that’s not talked about.”
School staff dealt with about 10 percent of the complaints in the last five years without a visit from the team trained to do air quality assessments, according to records reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.
But even when employees seek the assessments, not everyone is satisfied with the response. The assessments do not gather enough detail and lack follow-up, according to the district’s facilities task force, a community group that advises the School Board on maintenance, new construction and renovation.
In an air quality assessment, environmental health employees check for visible mold, water damage, excessive humidity and other factors.
When they find mold, they advise on-site staff to wipe it with disinfectant. They prescribe work orders to replace water damaged materials and repair malfunctioning air conditioning systems when they find trouble, according to thousands of assessments reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.
Inspectors don’t return unless they get another complaint.
“There’s no real follow-up on that report. A lot of that is, ‘Oh, surface mold, it’s the janitor’s responsibility’ … where a lot of our mold and mildew problems are beyond the walls and ceiling cavities,” said Decker, who is also a member of the facilities task force.
Roger Herde of indoor air quality company DuctMasters said mold frequently lives in ductwork and releases harmful spores through vents without making an appearance in the room.
Those spores in turn can attach to kids’ clothing.
“They bring it on the school bus, they bring it home,” he said. “The kids can’t do anything about it; they have to go to school.”
Years ago, district staff conducted walk-throughs of every school to search for mold.
It trained school staff in the beginning of the year to maintain healthy indoor environments and had them fill out an online, multiple-choice survey halfway through the year that discussed cleanliness, temperature, humidity levels and where mold and mildew growth had been spotted.
Assessment teams then visited each school in the spring to validate the survey complaints and to make sure they were taken care of.
Decker said he’s tried to get the district to do that again, to no avail.
District management said they do not need to do walk-throughs again because they did them to get “baseline” knowledge of the school conditions and now school-based staff can tell them when there’s a problem.
Other districts measure response times
One of the major tenants of the 2003 grand jury report was to stress that Broward fix roof leaks as quickly as possible because leaks provoke mold growth.
Yet district officials say there has never been a way to analyze response times to these problems.
Bays assured that “we live to respond to our customers’ needs. We are very concerned with keeping the kids dry and comfortable.”
Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, a Facilities Task Force member, called it negligent not to measure response times. It’s important to track this, she said, so that the problems of the past don’t recur.
Other school districts regularly assess their response times. Miami-Dade relies on them for staff evaluations, and Orange County schools conduct regular analyses of response times. Palm Beach County schools did not return a request for comment.
Lauren Roth, spokeswoman for Orange County schools, said maintenance staff constantly assess response times to different types of problems to determine where they may need additional resources or training.
Employees even place cards on the walls reminding them of their response times.
Broward said it is switching to a better recording-keeping system that may allow management to measure response times.
“The Stranahan Lung”
Although allergies can develop at any age, constant exposure to indoor molds can trigger reactions in previously healthy children. They’re more at risk than adults because their immune systems are less developed and because they breathe more times per hour than adults do, inhaling more spores, according to the 2003 grand jury report.
At Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, they have a name for it.
“We joke about having Stranahan Lung, when you’re away for summer and you feel great and you get back in the building and your sinuses go crazy,” said Thomas Harrison, the athletic director.
The week before school started, he spent just four hours in his building when, he said, the feeling began to creep in. A trash bin, meanwhile, lay waiting to catch raindrops through an exposed ceiling tile.
“Unfortunately it’s become the status quo,” Harrison said.
William Swafford, a mold remediation specialist, said his son would come home from school in a portable classroom at Indian Trace in Weston congested and with sinus headaches. On days off, his son wouldn’t have those problems.
“I knew what it was, it was pretty easy to tell,” he said. “When they go to school fine and they come home stuffy almost every day, you kind of know it’s coming from the school.”
It was no surprise to him, he noted, because he knew the portable struggled with air conditioning malfunctions. He said mold is like an airborne seed that can land on anything and simply needs moisture to grow.
“Any air movement … a door closing from the air pressure can make thousands of mold spores go airborne,” he said. “That’s what you’re breathing in.”
Broward turns off the air conditioning in some buildings when they’re vacant. Administrators told the Sun Sentinel that turning it off prevents the buildings from getting too cold, collecting condensation and causing mold to grow. Miami Dade and Palm Beach schools follow the same procedure.
Some mold and air duct experts said the opposite.
Shutting air conditioners off invites humidity, which in turn invites mold growth, Herde of DuctMasters said.
David Manset, the Oakland Park teacher, has to use a de-humidifier in his classroom to keep teaching.
He started getting monthly upper respiratory infections, sore throat, voice loss and extreme fatigue when he started working there. He had so much post-nasal drip that he took frequent trips to urgent care because he felt like he couldn’t breath.
A Cleveland Clinic doctor diagnosed him with a severe case of nonallergic rhinitis, in which irritants cause him chronic inflammation and make him more susceptible to viral infections.
“Just before coming to see me, he noted that his classroom smelled like mold. There was a visible water leak, and then the thermostat broke and the visible mold colony exploded,” his doctor, David Kaufman, wrote in a letter obtained by the Sun Sentinel. “Clearly this condition has been triggered by exposure to mold.”
‘They begged us’
Broward’s $800 million bond program, approved by voters in 2014, is expected to provide some more permanent solutions to buildings plagued by roof leaks and air conditioning malfunctions that cause mold.
In the two school years that have followed the bond’s passage, Northeast High has recorded more than 60 work orders to fix roof leaks.
The program has faced delays because Broward made numerous errors in estimating the needs of each school. It changed its methods to advertise for and select contractors. Turmoil in the purchasing department meant there was nobody to put construction work out for bid.
“They begged us to get everybody in the community to vote for it,” said Chet Ludwick, who formerly served on an advisory board for the city of Fort Lauderdale. “And we still have schools in this condition.”
Human beings are creatures of habit. We all have certain likes and dislikes. One thing most folks can agree on is the preference to be comfortable while at work or leisure when indoors. Temperature and ventilation certainly play big roles in making the indoor environment comfortable. It’s common to notice changes in temperature and adjust the thermostat to maintain comfort. But detecting humidity, oxygen levels, and indoor air quality issues is always as easy. Headaches, stuffy sinuses and feeling tired might very well be related to the air you breathe. What’s in your building’s air?
Studies conducted by the EPA and Harvard among others have found that humans spend 90% of their time indoors within shared spaces. Some studies have even shown that indoor environments can have higher levels of pollutants than what can be found outside. Many of the indoor pollutants either originate in or can be picked up and redistributed by the building HVAC system.
Under normal operating and maintenance conditions the HVAC system can monitor and correct for a multitude of IAQ conditions in your building’s air. But as maintenance is deferred, the air handing unit can become fouled, foster microbial growth, and begin to under perform, eventually breaking down. It is estimated that a little as 3/16 of an inch of dirt lodged in between the fins across an evaporator coil can decrease the efficiency of the unit by 21%!
Other factors, besides the HVAC system, like new office equipment, furniture, renovations and even additional employees can have a negative impact on IAQ as well.
Luckily, the EPA provides a guide to better understand indoor air quality and what can be done to maintain and improve it. “An Office Building Occupant’s Guide to Indoor Air Quality can be viewed here.
A closer look at indoor pollutants.
When examining the pollutants that can affect indoor air quality there are three main categories to consider: biological contaminants, chemicals/gases and particles.
Biological contaminants such as bacteria, fungi (including molds), dust mites, animal dander and pollen can all affect building health. A properly maintained and cleaned HVAC is key to minimizing the growth and distribution of biological contaminants throughout the building. Bacteria and mold can flourish inside of a cool and damp air handling unit. Typically, a musty odor is associated with microbial growth. If excessive concentrations are left unchecked a entire host of health related issues including asthma and allergies can occur.
Chemicals and Gases
Emissions from products used in the building can also contribute to indoor air quality issues. Everything from cleaning products to office equipment like copy machines can put harmful compounds into air, this includes gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Monitoring ventilation rates and controls is important. It is crucial to have a healthy mix of fresh outdoor air exchanged with the indoor air to maintain optimal quality.
Particulates like dust, dirt, paper fibers or other substances can be brought into a building from outside or produced by activities, like printing, that happen inside of the facility. Good housekeeping and proper filtration can alleviate most particulate issues. Remember, filtration should be designed to fit the specific environment and building use.
OSHA goes into detail about these categories and IAQ management in their guide located here.
Be Proactive and Vigilant
Always stay on top of HVAC maintenance and cleaning. Regular hygienic cleaning, like Pure Air Control Service’s PURE-Steam, can prevent IAQ issues emanating from the HVAC system. PURE-Steam is a high temperature, low pressure, cleaning service that kills microbial growth and flushes dirt from deep within the evaporator coils. It can improve overall system performance and cleanliness. Beyond the HVAC system, Pure Air Control Services also provides PURE-Decon room disinfection, that utilizes a hydrogen peroxide and silver mist to get rid of bacteria, fungi and viruses.
If you have never cleaned your HVAC system then IAQ testing would be a good first step to determining any potential issues. Even a simple HVAC Hygienic Assessment can be helpful in looking at the cleanliness and performance of the system regarding building health and energy efficiency.
Finally, be in-tune with your building’s occupants. Pay attention to common health complaints and where they are concentrated. These complaints are often the frontline in the IAQ battle, and provide early detection to get out in front of any issues before they get worse.
Understanding how IAQ is connected to your HVAC system is a critical step in developing a maintenance plan for the optimal health, comfort and energy efficiency of your building.