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Fungus Among Us Goes Beyond Hilton   PDF  Print  E-mail 
Posted by Susan Lillard  
Sunday, 03 October 2004

Howard Dicus, Pacific Business News

The mold Hilton Hawaiian Village is expected to spend $10 million fighting in its Kalia Tower probably can be found in office buildings all over Hawaii and beyond.

Mold closed 12 of the 15 operating rooms at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital last year, and when Canadian health authorities decided to check other hospitals across the dominion they found mold in 24 of them.

At an aging police station in Springfield, Ore., investigators found that mold in two parts of the facility was causing police officers' respiratory complaints.

A California newspaper, the Modesto Bee, reported last week that a 1-year-old company that tests buildings for mold projects $3 million a year in revenue next year because of a "mold boom."

The specialists Hilton flew in from the mainland have identified the mold in the Kalia Tower as eurotium, a phase of aspergillus. Despite the uncommon words, the diagnosis, if correct, means a very common mold has taken hold in the building. "Molds, a subset of the fungi, are ubiquitous on our planet," The Journal of Environmental Health said in its February article "The Fungus Among Us." Mold doesn't grow just on food, the journal said, it grows on cloth, carpets, leather, wood, insulation and Sheetrock.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association's Field Guide for the Determination of Biological Contaminants in Environmental Samples says eurotium is the same mold you sometimes see on bread or cheese.

A University of Toronto Web site on molds says, "Species of eurotium grow best in dry situations and are usually cultivated on media high in sucrose or glycerine. They are common in homes, stored grains and rodent dwellings."

"Eurotium suggests, among other things, carpets with accumulations of dry skin scales and dust," one industrial air-sampling firm suggests.

That bit of information may be more useful to people fighting mold at home than in hotels, where carpets are vacuumed daily. And the Kalia Tower has been open for only a year. Experts are less likely to look at the carpeting than at the ventilation system.

Up to 30 percent of so-called "sick building" cases are blamed on indoor fungal or bacterial contamination, says Wally Kowalski of Penn State University.

"Mold growth can occur from water damage, condensation, leaks or even the mere presence of high humidity [i.e. more than 90 percent] because nutrient and temperature conditions are invariably satisfied indoors," he said.

He calls aspergillus one of the more hazardous fungi and notes that its eurotium form seems to like gypsum-based finishes.

Gypsum is found in wallboard.

"Aspergillus is a group of molds which is found everywhere worldwide," said Javier Vilar, an infectious-diseases specialist at Britain's University of Manchester. "Only a few of these molds can cause illness in humans and animals. Most people are naturally immune."

But Vilar says up to one in five asthmatics may suffer allergic reactions to aspergillus mold at some time in their lives. And more serious problems can be caused when a previous lung disease has left cavities in the lung where mold can grow. An infrequent but serious aspergillus sinusitis also has been reported.

One difficulty in diagnosing such a reaction is that so many other things can make you sneeze and cough.

"Molds are just one of several sources of indoor allergens," the Journal of Environmental Health said, "including dust mites, cockroaches, effluvia from domestic pets and other microorganisms."

Sometimes aspergillus can be a good thing.

"There is probably no other genus of fungi so useful to humans that is also so harmful to humans," a University of Wisconsin mold information site says of aspergillus in general. "Members of this genus produce many industrially useful enzymes, chemicals and foods. Yet others produce deadly carcinogenic toxins, and some may even grow through a person's lungs as if it were a loaf of bread."

Because of the cost of getting citric acid from citrus fruits, most of the citric acid in cola drinks comes from one kind of fermented aspergillus. Another kind is used to make authentic soy sauce and is used in miso soup. But a third kind produces aflatoxin, which can cause cancer or lung disease.

These are not the strains found at the Hilton, if the hotel's environmental consultants are correct. But Local 5 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union said this week it would commission its own tests to be sure.

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