Jason Genrich’s 17-year Army career is under threat because of his health. It’s not because of injuries sustained on one of his four deployments — it’s because of mold growing in his military housing at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
Genrich, a chief warrant officer 3, and his wife Jenny moved into a house on the base near Tampa in August 2018. Within five months, Genrich visited four specialists for ongoing symptoms including chest pains, mood swings, dizziness and fatigue. For the first time in his military career, he was placed on a medical deferment from physical activity. In February, his neurologist diagnosed him with “sick building syndrome” and started him on a regimen of four daily medications.
His story and those of four other military families are outlined in a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, claiming the Michaels Organization, the private company responsible for managing the on-base housing at MacDill, knew the houses there had mold problems and did not protect the health and safety of service members and their families. Instead, the company, known locally at MacDill as Harbor Bay, took an incomplete, piecemeal approach to remediating mold problems that was ineffective, according to the suit.
The company’s actions were a breach of contract, a violation of Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and negligent, according to the lawsuit. Other names for the Michaels Organization listed in the lawsuit include Michaels Management Services, Inc., Interstate Realty Management Company, AMC East Communities and Clark Capital Realty. A representative for the organization said Tuesday they are not commenting on the lawsuit at this time.
The families are seeking damages for economic losses, personal injuries, and associated pain and suffering, said Shanon Carson, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based law firm Berger Montague, which filed the suit in partnership with the Tampa-based Whistleblower Law Firm. It is a class-action lawsuit that could include any current or former residents of the 572 houses at MacDill managed by the Michaels Organization. A meeting scheduled for Dec. 11 near MacDill is open to anyone who thinks they might want to be included the suit.
Staff Sgt. Gary Elbon and his family were faced with a leaking HVAC unit that trapped moisture beneath the linoleum flooring in their military housing at MacDill Air Force Base. Despite numerous requests to The Michaels Organization, who was responsible for maintenance, the unit was never repaired, leading to mold growth beneath the family’s flooring. FLORIDA MIDDLE DISTRICT COURT
“The filing of the lawsuit today is the first initial phase of the case,” Carson said. “We are interested in hearing from everyone who’s been affected by the problems at MacDill or other military bases if they also experienced problems with mold and problems resulting with building issues.”
At least three other multifamily lawsuits have been filed in federal courts against private companies that manage military base housing. Similar to the suit at MacDill, each one accuses housing companies of unsafe living conditions that were aggravated by shoddy maintenance work and slow response to repair requests.
For the past year, military family housing has been in the spotlight following an investigation by the Reuters news agency that exposed the toxic conditions within some on-base homes. This week, Congress will hold a second round of hearings about the efforts of the Defense Department and private companies to fix ongoing problems. Defense officials will speak to the Senate Armed Service Committee on Tuesday and private management companies will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Aside from describing the conditions of each of the five family’s homes and their back-and-forth with Harbor Bay to make their homes livable, the 62-page lawsuit also describes building deficiencies as a systemic problem at MacDill.
“The mold problems at MacDill [Air Force Base] have been evident in many homes that are built on stilts,” according to the lawsuit. “These homes frequently contain a building defect including, without limitation, the lack [of] a proper vapor barrier between the first floor of the home and the outdoors. The air conditioning units for these homes also lack a second line.”
Emili Potts first noticed the mold outside of Craige dorm, trailing the wall below her leaky air conditioning unit.
When the UNC-Chapel Hill junior began having trouble breathing, she looked inside her AC unit and saw mold growing on the vents.
She went to the doctor because her throat hurt, and she couldn’t stop coughing. The doctor told her she had bacterial pneumonia, most likely linked to the AC unit. She was hospitalized for two days in February, missing classes and two exams.
She also incurred about $3,000 in medical bills after insurance.
“I’m a very outgoing person,” said Potts, who is a resident adviser in Craige, “and I like to talk to my residents and make sure I have time for them and all of that. But being sick all the time, it also makes me very tired, so I spend a lot of time just like being exhausted and don’t have the energy to do my job effectively.”
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 UNC students will be moved out of off-campus housing during mold removal at Granville Towers, a privately managed complex.
But hundreds of students who live on campus and face similar problems are getting little relief.
Potts has had pneumonia two more times since February, most recently last month. She reported her concerns to the university, but she’s not been satisfied by the temporary solutions such as AC cleanings and refills for her antibiotics. It’s taken a toll on her grades and her physical and mental health.
She keeps an inhaler with her, something she’s never needed before.
“The health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and visitors is the University’s highest priority, and we take all reports of potential mold seriously,” Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing, said in an email from UNC Media Relations. “If a student has filed a Fix-My-Room request but they feel their issues are not being resolved to their satisfaction, I encourage them to speak to their RA (resident adviser) so that the situation can be elevated.”
Potts said her residents have complained about mold. She tells them to fill out “Fix-My-Room” requests to Carolina Housing because there’s nothing else she can do.
HUNDREDS OF WORK ORDERS
There were 484 work orders mentioning mold sent to Carolina Housing between August 2018 and May 2019, Blattner said. Between the start of the school year in August and mid-October, there have been 106 work orders mentioning mold — 63 of which have been made since Granville residents were first alerted about the complex’s mold on Oct. 2.
Blattner said that historically, less than 20 percent of these work orders are actually found to be mold.
“Most of the misidentification occurs when students look inside the window AC unit and they perceive the coils to be moldy is actually the coils getting darker naturally over time as they age,” Blattner said.
Mold is a greater concern in the Southeast because of the weather, Blattner said.
“Given a source of moisture, microbial growth (commonly referred to as mold) can grow just about anywhere within 24-48 hours,” the Carolina Housing website says. “These conditions can be created by food, organic materials containing moisture, wet towels, water intrusion, or spills which are not cleaned up immediately.”
When Potts addressed her concerns with maintenance workers in August and asked what action will be taken to eliminate mold, she said they refused to call it mold and said it’s a “biological growth.”
“And then they said basically that all of the buildings on campus and any building you go will have mold, so there’s just nothing you can do about it,” Potts said.
The complaints mainly plague residence halls with window unit AC systems including Parker, Hinton James, Craige, Ehringhaus, Joyner and Spencer, Blattner said. Approximately 2,700 students live in these dorms, according to the housing website.
“If an observation of mold is reported,” Blattner said, “a same-day visual inspection occurs and then Housing/Facilities works with Environment, Health and Safety to clean the mold, resolve any underlying issues and provide recommendations to prevent any reoccurrence. Facilities Services also performs regularly scheduled preventive maintenance and building inspections, including preventive maintenance of building HVAC, which is crucial for mold prevention.”
Using research from the Department of Housing and Residential Education, the University’s Master Plan suggests UNC needs to renovate, redevelop and build new dorms in the near future. The plan was approved in June, and Carolina Housing is working on a timeline for the project, Blattner said.
The University inspected and cleaned all window AC units in residence halls this summer, Blattner said. They are also working to replace window AC units with central air systems. The most recent renovation was Stacy Hall this summer, totaling $3.6 million.
Six other buildings’ AC systems have been replaced since summer 2015, totaling $13.5 million. The University plans to replace Joyner Hall’s system next spring.
Students pay almost $7,000 annually to live in a double-occupancy dorm room. About 19 percent of Carolina Housing’s 2019-20 budget will go to maintenance, housekeeping and grounds, and 22 percent will go to capital improvements.
As an employee of the University, Potts’ room and board price is cheaper than other students, and she keeps the job because she relies on it for financial reasons. But she said it’s getting to the point where her dad wants her to quit and focus on her health.
“As a resident adviser, obviously I’m not paying as much to live here as other residents, but it frustrates me for them who are paying a pretty hefty room and board price in my opinion to live in a place where it’s making them sick and they can’t do anything about it,” Potts said.
Just a 7-minute walk from campus, Granville Towers is dealing with the same issues.
It opened in 1964 and was bought by The UNC Foundation, the university fundraising unit, in 2009. It houses approximately 1,300 students.
While Granville is not managed by Carolina Housing or UNC Facilities Services, it partners with the University to maintain residence life programs.
In an Oct. 11 email to Granville residents, Granville staff provided a timeline for mold clean-up.
The tentative schedule suggests cleaning will be completed in the West, East and South Towers in waves by Nov. 3. High Efficiency Particulate Air filters were placed in every room awaiting cleaning to remove any particles in the air, including mold spores.
When a student’s room is cleaned, he or she will be placed in nearby hotels for two nights.
Meanwhile on campus, Granville’s clean-up plan leaves on-campus residents frustrated by the difference in response.
Blattner said Granville is managed by a private company. “Because of this, the work being done has no impact on the speed of the Carolina Housing facilities responses.”
“I got moved into a room with more mold, and they get The Carolina Inn and hotels?” UNC senior Larissa Burke said. “And most of the on-campus residents affected by mold weren’t even as ‘lucky’ as me to be moved into a different room. It’s extremely unfair.”
Burke was also a resident adviser in Craige last year. She noticed the mold lining her cabinets and desk as soon as she moved in.
Things escalated when she returned from fall break. The mold lined every piece of fabric she owned, covering her futon and clothes. She washed everything she could and refused to live in the same room.
Carolina Housing moved her to a different room in the same building, but it wasn’t any better. She constantly felt like she had a cold, sniffling and coughing.
She continued to fill out Fix-My-Room requests, and the University responded with temporary cleanings. Even when they told her it was clean, she would find more mold.
Burke bought cleaning supplies and deep cleaned the room herself. Her dad bought her a $200 industrial humidifier.
She also lost more than $500 in damaged property including her futon, suitcase, backpack, boots and other clothing. She sent the detailed list to Carolina Housing and was told she would be reimbursed for her financial loss. She never was.
“It’s frustrating to know that your employers don’t really care enough to do something. It’s where we’re living,” Burke said. “I am paying, RAs do have to pay some money. But like it’s still, it’s where you live. It’s supposed to be a safe place.”
Mold spores shot out of her unit, and Burke hit a breaking point. She asked housing to replace her unit entirely. They did, and her problems were resolved immediately.
Burke got out of Craige this year. She’s currently an adviser in Ram Village Apartments and said she has had no issues with air quality.
Potts wasn’t as lucky. She faced her problems later in the year and had already selected Craige as her preferred work location.
“It’s very frustrating because they preach this whole how they care about us, and clearly if so many people are having to deal with this,” Burke said, “then how much do they really care?”
If you discover a mold problem, there are certainly some things you shouldn’t do. To ensure a safe and efficient mold removal, contact professionals!
If you suspect there’s mold in your home, you might be tempted to try and tackle it on your own, thinking that’s the most cost-efficient and time-effective approach. However, even though there are many things safe to fix on your own, cleaning mold is certainly not one of them. In fact, attempting to remove mold by yourself can actually cause more harm than good.
Finding Mold in the Home
The following are five things you should NOT do if you find mold in your home:
Do NOT attempt to clean mold using a normal vacuum. A mold spore is extremely small and will go right through a typical vacuum filter. When working with mold, use a HEPA vacuum. These vacuums are able to collect 99.9 percent of particles larger than 0.3 microns in size and trap them in their filters. Using a HEPA vacuum will also help prevent cross-contamination with other areas of your home.
Do NOT remove mold without setting up proper containment. When removing contaminated materials, it is necessary to contain the affected area in order to protect the rest of your home from possible spreading of the mold spores. The area must be properly sealed and the HVAC system should be turned off. The logic behind this is that handling moldy materials disturbs resting mold spores, which then become airborne and are more easily inhaled.
Do NOT handle mold without personal protective equipment. When mold is agitated during a remediation project or demolition, it becomes airborne. To minimize your chances of inhaling potentially harmful mold spores, always wear a face mask or a respirator. This is particularly important as, during a demolition or mold removal, you are typically breathing heavily, which can increase the amount of mold you inhale. It is also a good idea to wear coveralls and gloves to avoid touching coming into contact with mold. The safest route is contacting the professionals with the best, most reliable equipment in the industry.
Do NOT use bleach to clean mold. The majority of people believe that bleach is a great cleaning agent. While this may be true for bacteria and viruses, bleach is not as effective for cleaning mold. This is because bleach can only kill surface mold, not the mold growing deep within the material. Moreover, because of its harshness, bleach may actually damage whatever surface you’re trying to clean. If you’re looking for an effective but eco-friendly way to clean mold, there are plenty of anti-fungal cleaning products available on the market today. Or, for an all-natural approach, you can even try a solution of vinegar and water.
Do NOT ignore a mold problem. Ignoring mold growth, big or small, is one of the worst things you can do. The longer you let mold grow, the greater the damage done to your property and the higher the cost to repair it. The best thing you can do is to call a mold remediation professional, who will be able to handle your mold problem with expertise, care, and the right equipment.
Prevent Mold and Protect Your Health
Regardless of how healthy you are or feel that you are, it’s not possible to completely escape or bypass the negative effects that long-time exposure to mold has on your health.
Many professionals in the field of environmental medicine, peer-reviewed literature on the topic, and victims of mold exposure themselves encourage prevention or, in other words, demand action.
Do your part to ensure mold doesn’t have the opportunity to grow and continue to produce deadly volatile organic compounds or toxins in your home. Do your part to prevent permanent injury from chronic exposure.
The debate over mold in your home and your health
Considering there’s an ongoing debate over a causal relationship between mold and symptoms associated with exposure to mold, families chronically affected by mold are left with unanswered questions and they’re shelling out their dollars for what may or may not help them on their journey back to health. Insurance plans neither recognize environmental illness, like mold, nor advocate for your child if the state of his or her health suffers as a result of the environment.
The debate over mold in your home and remediation
If there is, in fact, a mold problem developing in your home, proper remediation also invites debate, as there are no government guidelines dictating how professionals must clean, to ensure your home is left safe when the job is declared finished. Unfortunately, for many, this controversy lends way to disbelief and lack of action, when in fact, action is exactly what everyone must do to prevent mold growing out of control in your home or workplace.
The nature and characteristics of indoor mold is variable. Sometimes one sees indoor mold growth with the naked eye. However, it is hard to assess health and hygiene effects just by looking at it.
Mold is ubiquitous in nature. Filamentous fungi often produce indoor mold in various environments. Excessive moisture, a carbon source, a moderate temperature (25ºC), and dampness, besides other factors, are supportive elements for the growth of indoor mold. The nature and characteristics of indoor mold is more variable. Sometimes one can see mold growth in indoor environments with the naked eye. However, it is hard to assess health and hygiene effects just by looking at it. Therefore, it is essential to study the indoor mold in order to understand its impacts.
There are a number of techniques available nowadays to isolate and identify the mold from indoor environments. No one technique fits in every scenario, but rather, it should be case specific. Although mold can be examined and evaluated in various ways, an integrated approach to detect mold in indoor environments is described below:
Indoor Mold Sampling
To study the airborne fungi from indoor environments
I Air samples, air samples are collected. Some popular mechanisms are described below for collecting mold/fungal samples from the ambient air.
a. Drum Trap (DT)
Airborne fungal elements are collected on an adhesive tape mounted on a rotating disc powered by an electric motor in an air sealed drum with an orifice. The rotation of the disc is fixed with that of the exposure time. Hirst spore trap, Tilak air samplers, etc. are some common commercially available samplers in this category.
b. Electrostatic Trap (ET)
Fungal/mold samples are collected by drawing air with a constant flow rate and exposure time over media under the influence of an electrostatically charged environment. Charged particles are collected on their positively charged electrode. An Electrostatic Sampling Device (ESD), SASS® 3100, Portable Biohazard Sampler, etc. are good commercially available samplers under this technique.
c. Filterer Trap (FT)
Air samples are drawn on a filter mounted within a closed, airtight chamber by pulling the air through it with a constant airflow rate and exposure time. Micro-orifice uniform deposit impactor (MOUDI), filter made out of cellulose ester, polyvinyl chloride, and polycarbonate are widely used for mold/fungi sampling.
d. Impinger Trap (IP)
In this method, the sample is collected by dissipating the air into an air tight flask containing the media with a constant airflow rate and exposure time. Some common IP samplers include, but are not limited to, Greenberg-Smith impinger, AGI-30, etc.
e. Pore Trap (PT)
Air samples for mold/fungal evaluation are collected on media in an air-tight cylinder by collecting air through a perforated metal plate with a constant airflow rate and exposure time. Anderson’s, Burked, Bio-culture, and Button Aerosol Samplers are routinely used based on this technique.
f. Rotorod Trap (RT)
The airborne fungal particulates are collected on a strip of sticky tape or surface mounted on a mechanical arm/surface attached to a spindle powered by an electric motor that can rotate with a specific number of rotations per minute for a determined exposure time. Rotorod sampler by Sampling Technology, Inc. is one of the most widely used samplers of this category.
g. Spore Trap (ST)
Commonly in this method, a gel-coated glass slip is employed inside an air sampling device and air is pulled out with a constant air flow for a predetermined exposure time depending on the project goals. Flow rate is verified in the field utilizing an in-line flow meter. Air is passed over the coated slide causing airborne fungal particles to adhere to the gel. Some commercially available devices of this category are Air-O-Cell, Micro 5, Allergenco-D, M2, Burkard volumetric samplers, etc.
h. Thermal Trap (TP)
The air samples are collected on a glass slip by placing it around a hot body into ambient air.
II Surface samples
Environmental surfaces are collected to evaluate the mold/fungal infestation in and around indoor environments. Some practical methods for collecting a surface sample are given below.
a. Bulk Sample (BSAM)
Bulk samples are made by collecting, scraping, or cutting a representative of the material/dust suspected for mold/fungi by using aseptic techniques. These samples are transferred to the laboratory in a sterile container for further analysis.
b. Surface Imprint Sample (SISM)
Environmental samples are collected with the help of sticky tape. The sticky side of the tape is placed over the test area and an imprint is taken in order to collect a surface sample for a mold/fungal evaluation. Bio-Scan400is the most accurate (cts/m2) and one of the more commonly used products for collecting surface samples for mold/fungi.
c. Swab Sample (SSAM)
Swab samples are made by swabbing a selected area by using sterile techniques. The collected specimens are transported to the laboratory for further enumeration. A number of companies make cotton or polyester swabs which are available in the market for environmental surface sampling for collecting mold/fungi samples.
d. Vacuum Sample (VSAM)
Dust samples are collected from environmental surfaces suspected for indoor mold with a dust collecting cassette and/or a vacuum sample device under aseptic conditions. The collected samples are transported to the laboratory in a sterile container for further evaluation. Dust sock®, Dust collector, etc. are available in the market for collecting environmental surface samples for mold/fungi.
e. Wipe Sample (WSAM)
Environmental surface samples are collected by means of wiping the selected area suspected for mold/fungi with a sterile gauze pad by following sterile techniques. A leak proof container should be used for transporting these aseptically collected specimens to the laboratory for mold/fungi evaluation. Sterile gauze can be procured in test kits, drug stores, and various other sources to collect environmental samples for testing mold/fungi.
No one sampling method can be used as an absolute standard for collecting environmental samples for the detection and identification of indoor mold. The best way to select a sampling method is to explore the performance of the sampling mechanism and its suitability for the intended project.
Mold Examination and Identification
Isolation of indoor mold collected from environmental samples is challengeable. Depending on the project needs, the trapped particles are isolated by using a suitable buffer such as phosphate buffer saline (PBS), distilled water, etc. Sometimes the collected specimens are directly examined. Some common methodologies are described below for the isolation and identification of mold/fungi from samples collected from the environment.
a. Non-culture method
Microscopic techniques are used to examine and identify the mold/fungal elements from the collected sample. This is a rather inexpensive method with a quick turnaround time. However, many times identification of the indoor mold is limited to a particular taxon.
b. Culture method
In this method, the isolated indoor mold or fungal inoculums on microbiological media are incubated at a required temperature and time for growing the culture. After obtaining the developed culture, microscopic or biochemical techniques are employed for the identification of mold/fungi. While this may be a time taking process, the identification of fungi is often possible both on the genus as well as the species level. Some fungal organisms are media specific; therefore, the selection of microbiological culture media may influence the outcome.
c. Molecular method
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) or other molecular diagnostics methods are used for the identification of mold/fungi from environmental samples. The advantage to this method is a higher accuracy in the identification with a faster turn around time. However, experimental set up is expensive and requires specific training.
d. Biochemical method
In this method, the isolated mold/fungal elements are subject to react with certain biochemicals and after a reaction is observed, a pattern is obtained. In other words, a “Metabolic Fingerprint” is obtained in order to identify the targeted indoor mold.
Faced with an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that has sickened 124 people and caused one death, North Carolina health officials say they’ve traced the source to a fair that was held last month. In particular, they say, people were more likely to develop the pneumonia-type disease if they walked past a hot tub display at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair.
“This is the largest outbreak that we have documented” of Legionnaires’ disease, a spokesperson from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services told NPR on Friday.
But because Legionnaires’ is not contagious and the disease’s incubation period of 2-10 days has now lapsed since the end of the fair, officials don’t expect the number of cases to grow very much beyond what has already been reported.
According to the latest figures, the 124 cases include 116 incidents of Legionnaires’ and eight cases of Pontiac fever — a milder form of the lung infection that occurs without pneumonia.
The outbreak was tracked to the large agricultural fair that was held through the middle of September in Fletcher, N.C., some 20 miles south of Asheville. About a week after the fair ended, the state Division of Public Health was alerted to a sudden spike in Legionnaire’s disease cases in Buncombe and Henderson counties.
According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, patients in the outbreak had reported going to the fair — and they were “much more likely to report having walked by the hot tub displays compared to people who did not get sick.”
While warning that its investigation is still ongoing, the agency said its early findings have led it to suspect the hot tub display. The evidence collected so far, it said, suggests that “low levels of Legionella present were able to grow in hot tubs or possibly some other source in the Davis Event Center, leading to exposure.”
The bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease can’t be spread directly from one person to another. Instead, they are commonly spread to the lungs through aerosolized water, in the form of a mist or vapor. And that’s another reason why investigators suspect a hot tub display at the Davis Event Center — an indoor space that hosted vendor exhibits during the fair.
In addition to the hot tub, health investigators found that a sink in the women’s room had also tested positive for Legionella bacteria, as Blue Ridge Public Radio reports. But as the state health agency notes, “very little aerosolized water is created” when people wash their hands in sinks, flush toilets or use other water sources at the agricultural center.
To trace the outbreak’s cause, health officials reviewed what the Legionnaires’ patients said about their movements at the fair. Those reports were then compared against a larger data sample that includes people who didn’t get sick, after state investigators sent an online survey to everyone who bought their tickets to the fair online.
The survey asked the fairgoers for details such as when they attended and what they did at the fair. Health officials say their analysis shows people who got sickwere much more likely to have visited in the latter half of the 10-day fair than in the early portion.
In response to the outbreak, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says the Davis Event Center is shut down and won’t be rented out for events.
“While we all feel confident that the facility is safe, we want to take these proactive mitigation measures to reassure the public and our employees,” the agency said.
Legionnaires’ disease occurs naturally in fresh water, but it can also thrive and spread through warm-water sources such as shower heads, cooling towers and hot tubs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While many healthy people might encounter Legionella without growing ill, it can especially affect smokers, people over the age of 50, those with chronic lung conditions and people with weakened immune systems.