Sunday, Mar. 16, 2008
Mold problem kept quiet
Growth never tested for toxicity before abatement
By Dena Pauling
BELLEFONTE — At the beginning of a three-year renovation of the Bellefonte Area High School in 2005, workers began an asbestos removal project and uncovered something unusual.
Patches of black mold — enough to lead to an 800-square-foot abatement project by an environmental contractor — were discovered above a plaster ceiling on the roof deck of a first-floor hallway near the high school’s old wrestling room.
There is no legal requirement to do so, but experts suggest informing building occupants when significant mold growth is found. The district did not notify parents, teachers or school board members.
The effects mold exposure can have on health depend on the type of mold and individuals’ sensitivies or allergies. Symptoms can include asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and eye, skin, nose throat or lung irritation. Some mold is toxic; some is not.
No testing was done on the mold found at Bellefonte to determine what type it was. School administrators do not know what caused it. A district health worker did not recall any reports of health problems that could be associated with the mold.
The Centre Daily Times learned of the mold last fall from district employees who asked not to be named. When first asked about the mold, Director of Physical Plant Aaron Barto denied the school ever had a mold problem. In response to a request for documents, the district initially failed to disclose the existence of a contract for abatement of the mold.
Barto acknowledged the problem in February, after the CDT obtained photographs of the mold from a source.
That abatement contract, air-quality reports, inquiries, interviews and other research over the past five months still leave many questions unanswered: What actually caused the mold? What was done to prevent it from happening again? What do puzzling results of air quality tests taken in 2005 mean? “All I’m saying is I don’t remember everything. It was found. It was abated,” Barto said in a February interview.
Discovery and abatement
The black mold was found in mid-August 2005 when the ceilings of a hallway were removed as part of an asbestos project, Barto said in an interview in the superintendent’s office.
“That’s like, if you look at this ceiling here, and you took this ceiling down and you look up against the roof, that is where it was,” he said.
Barto spoke during an interview in February in Superintendent J. Tom Masullo Jr.’s office, where he was shown photos of the mold near an air duct dated Aug. 15, 2005. He provided a copy of the abatement contract and a 2005 air quality report that he said he’d overlooked in his files earlier.
He answered questions for about 20 minutes before becoming visibly upset and leaving.
“I don’t know if you realize what has gone on the last three years. But I’ve had a ton of things going on,” he said. “And I don’t always remember to do it, you know. We aren’t required to do it (air-quality testing). I just had it done.”
Barto said he suspected a roof leak was to blame for the mold.
“Who knows how long it was in there?” Barto said of the mold. “It was not visible underneath. If we had a roof leak coming down through there, we would have known. But there was nothing in that hallway.”
After the mold was discovered, Barto called Penoco Inc., a Pleasant Gap asbestos abatement contractor, to assess the situation. “They looked at it. They said, ‘yep, it’s mold,’” he said. “They abated it.”
The abatement cost $3,869.
Penoco President Timothy J. Sommer signed the contract. When contacted by the Centre Daily Times, he initially denied doing a mold abatement project at the high school. He then declined to comment.
The contract, dated Aug. 24, 2005, called for removal of an 800-square-foot patch of drywall paper that was “stained” and had “significant evidence of mold growth.”
The work was to be completed in three daylight shifts, and the area was to be placed under negative pressure containment with all air being HEPA-filtered and exhausted to the outside, the contract states.
“After drywall paper removal and disposal, the existing, exposed top face (underside) of the roof deck system will be sanitized to remove mold residue. Surfaces will then be coated with an anti-microbial encapsulant to limit future mold growth,” the contract states. The contract doesn’t specify what chemicals or products were to be used or how they were to be applied.
Spraying, or sanitizing, is “never ever an acceptable substitute for removal of moldy materials,” said Daniel Friedman, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., an independent indoor air-quality professional with more than 20 years experience in mold field investigations and lab services. Friedman reviewed the contract and photographs of the mold at the request of the CDT.
There are no federal standards for airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor are public schools subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.
OSHA does offer guidelines, and the EPA provides an online guidebook specifically addressing mold in schools.
Both government agencies, Friedman and W. Ed Montz Jr., president of Pottstown-based Indoor Air Solutions and an independent mold expert with more than a decade of experience, recommend notifying building occupants when a significant problem exists.
“Effective communication with building occupants is an essential component of all large-scale remediation efforts,” OSHA suggests. Mold abatement projects between 30 to 100 square feet are considered large by the agency. The abatement project in Bellefonte covered 800 square feet.
Meeting minutes from July to December 2005 show no record of the school board being informed. Board President Robert Lumley-Sapanski, who was on the board at the time, did not return phone calls.
Masullo said no one was trying to hide the situation and there are no regulations that require notification.
“I keep the board pretty informed on things,” Masullo said. “I don’t even recall that I knew about it at the time.”
The Penoco contract would have been part of the overall budget for the $35 million high school renovation project and did not need school board approval, Masullo said.
Minutes of a meeting of the school safety committee, which consists of Barto and staff members, show the committee reviewed the mold on Aug. 24.
“The mold appeared to be dry and may have been from many years prior but will be removed regardless,” state the minutes, posted on the district Web site. The subject wasn’t discussed further.
Although not required by law, Bellefonte has conducted indoor/outdoor mold air-quality testing at the high school almost annually in recent years. In 2005, it conducted three air quality tests — one routine test, and two tests prompted by the mold discovery. The results are puzzling.
On Aug. 29, 2005, an employee of Penn Ecosystems Inc., of Lock Haven, took air samples in areas of the hallway where mold abatement was to take place later that week, the report states.
A few days later on Sept. 2, a different employee conducted post-abatement testing in the same area and in or near six additional classrooms.
The desired outcome is to have lower mold spore counts indoors than outdoors.
Pre-abatement, Penn Ecosystems recorded a spore count of 1,100 in the east end of the hallway and 320 in the west end. The outside count was 760.
Post-abatement testing showed a spore count of 1,400 in the east end and 2,200 in the west end. Both counts were higher than the first outside sample but lower than the second outdoor sample of 3,800 taken days later.
It is “a bit suspicious” but not a surprise, Friedman said after reviewing the report on the 2005 tests.
“If inadequate dust containment measures were used, we would expect higher subsequent counts because the ‘cleaning’ process greatly agitates whatever dust or mold is present in the items being disturbed,” he said.
“The report gives only total mold counts,” Friedman added, “permitting any wild interpretation anyone may wish to make, since we don’t have any idea just what mold was being found.”
The classrooms tested show post-abatement spore counts ranging from 1,400 to 3,000.
Montz, who also reviewed the report, said a second outside air sample would have been helpful, given the differences in pre- and post-abatement spore counts. Perhaps the mold levels outside that day truly were much higher than just a few days prior, he said. “Two samples would have helped give some insight,” he said, “and they don’t have it.”
He said he doesn’t like to see the “kind of levels they saw in the classrooms.”
“Three thousand spores in Room 60 is quite a few spores,” Montz said. “I don’t think I would have said, ‘all is clear.’ I would have gone back. I don’t know that I would have dismissed it with the wave of the hand.”
Mold not tested
The Penn Ecosystems report concluded that there “doesn’t appear to be an airborne mold issue in the areas of abatement” because the inside levels are “very close” to the level outside.
Kristina Akeley, president of Penn Ecosystems, said Thursday that no mold problem exists unless the spore counts inside are at least twice as high as the outside counts. More than one outside sample is not necessary, she said.
She could not say for sure why six additional classrooms were sampled after abatement but not before.
Of the five or six school districts in central Pennsylvania that her company has worked with, Bellefonte is one of the “most proactive,” Akeley said.
“They (the other districts) generally will not touch mold. They just don’t like to do it,” she said. “It brings about liability issues.” Bellefonte did not conduct an air-quality test in 2006; results from a 2007 test showed spore counts ranging from 40 to 400 inside the high school and 240 outside the building.
The 2005 report makes no reference to the mold ever being cultured to determine what type it was.
In most cases, that’s unnecessary. But in certain instances — if the source of the mold contamination is unclear, health concerns are raised or information is needed to determine if an area has been adequately cleaned — sampling can be helpful, according to the EPA.
The EPA recommends that schools include in any abatement project steps to fix the water or moisture problem that caused the mold.
If the mold came from a roof leak, it’s possible that the issue was addressed during renovations, which are expect to continue into April. But nothing in Bellefonte’s air-quality report or contract indicates what was done to prevent it from recurring.
“Mold is mold. When it is seen like this, you just have it abated,” Barto said. The mold itself didn’t need to be tested, he added, and testing is not required.
Masullo said air-quality tests done in prior years did not raise any concerns.
Montz’s company, Indoor Air Solutions, has conducted mold remediation at numerous schools in the past 20 years. Overplaying and underplaying mold problems to the community are both wrong, he advises.
“Don’t bury your head in the sand,” he said. “Just say, ‘Hey, we have a problem,’ own up to it, and here’s how we are fixing it.” The mold area had to be chronically wet, Montz said after reviewing the pictures, and someone should have known of the moisture problem.
“The one reassuring thing — the visible mold is now gone. The source material is now in the Dumpster somewhere. That is a step in the right direction,” he said. “But do we know the full story here? Not really.”
Dena Pauling can be reached at 231-4619.