by Julia Lyon, The Bulletin
During lunch on Oct. 25, teachers on the south side of the Early Childhood Education Center complained of a strong, unidentifiable smell. Later office workers all over the reservation began to complain about feeling sick.
Tribal officials hired environmental consultants. They monitored air quality in virtually every public building. What consultants found in the Early Childhood Education building and in other basements surprised some in this Indian community.
They discovered mold. Black, sponge-patterned growths covered large patches of some walls in the basement of another structure, the Education Services Center. A test on the back of a poster confirmed the presence of stachybotrys chartarum, sometimes called black mold. This type of mold has been linked to symptoms ranging from memory problems to bleeding lungs, although some medical experts dispute those claims.
So the tribes attacked, spending about $100,000 to clean and seal off mold. Officials blocked off the building’s basement and moved workers to another location. After months of renovation, recent air sampling tests show mold levels in the Education Services Center have dropped dramatically.
Warm Springs Culture and Heritage Department Director Myra Johnson says she isn’t sick anymore now that mold has been cleaned out of the building where she works on the reservation. Before the mold was cleaned out of the Education Services Center, Johnson would feel sick by afternoon with allergy and flu-like symptoms, including sinus problems and bad headaches.
Mold in the Crawl Space
While the smell in the Early Childhood Center turned out to be cleaning solvents, consultants found mold in the crawl space. It is now closed off. About four homes have also been tested for mold; one was gutted and others were inspected.
The problem for the tribes and homeowners nationwide is that it’s hard to know what to believe.
“I’m not denying the fact we have a mold problem,” Warm Springs Fire and Safety Chief Dan Martinez said. “But there’s good molds and bad molds. … We don’t know if there are health risks to these things. We only know what we’ve been fed.”
One self-described mold expert says reservation officials don’t understand how serious the threat is.
“I’m not trying to scare anyone here, but they have to know what’s going on,” said Paul Hawks, an environmental consultant.
“If they really knew, they’d put people in tents.”
Tribal officials say they did not ignore the potential risks. They educated themselves, sending officials to mold conferences and re-examining reservation building codes.
“I would disagree with anyone’s contention that we’re not taking this seriously,” said William Fuentes, the chief operating officer for the tribes.
The quandary over mold on the Warm Springs Reservation mirrors a nationwide debate. In the last few years, mold has become the new invisible environmental threat, like radon gas and electromagnetic fields, inspiring panic in some homeowners across the nation.
Erin Brockovich of PG&E fame took her own fight against mold to the California Legislature.
Some homeowners insurance policies now restrict how much “mold damage” a homeowner can claim.
County health departments in Central Oregon haven’t seen a high level of concern by residents regarding mold, but public health officials are aware of the issue.
It’s “not a huge problem overall for Central Oregon,” said Eric Mone, a Deschutes County sanitarian.
“But the people who do have these problems, for whatever reason the mold is in their home, they can have health problems as a result.”
Some local health officials were surprised to hear about mold east of the Cascades.
Mold can be found anywhere – even in arid Central Oregon – and not just in Warm Springs. The climate doesn’t dictate whether mold grows or not.
“It’s whether the building is dry or wet,” said Dr. Harriet Ammann, a toxicologist with the state of Washington and a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee investigating the relationship between damp indoor spaces and health.
Black mold, or stachybotrys, in brush and timber can thrive in cellulose-rich building materials, such as sheet rock.
Although no one can know for certain, the mold on Warm Springs probably came to life in wet walls or spaces with little ventilation. Poor maintenance, flawed building design and housekeeping may have helped the mold grow.
Molds are organic recylers and they sometimes release spores or mycotoxins, which may affect people in different ways. Extensive mold growth may cause coughing and cold-like symptoms, according to the Oregon Public Health Services. Serious mold-related illnesses from mold exposure are very rare, the health service states. Molds such as stachybotrys, aspergillus, penicillium and others are commonly found in homes, but rarely cause severe or life-threatening illness.
A PERSONAL MISSION
Hawks, the environmental inspector, came to the reservation last fall at the request of an outside consultant. He knows that for every skeptic, there’s a believer. He calls himself a mold crusader.
“When they say the meek is going to inherit the earth, they’re really talking about mold. It’s a poison.”
Hawks worked on-site with the tribes to identify the magnitude of their potential mold problem. He sees a big one.
He wants to donate a day a week if the tribes will follow a program to clean up the mold. What does he have to benefit?
“Mankind,” Hawks said.
His own life was turned upside down by mold, he said. Hawks moved out of his house five years ago after he discovered it was covered with mold from contaminated wood. Every time he walked into the house, his nose bled.
He would get home and realize he had no memory of driving there.
He couldn’t remember his home phone number.
“I really care about the people of Warm Springs. Really, they are a national treasure, and we’re going to lose it if things stay the way they are on all these reservations.”
U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., helped win millions in federal funds to move families on the Turtle Mountain Reservation out of mold-infested houses.
But several Warm Springs tribal official say Hawks has stirred up some hysteria surrounding mold on the reservation.
When Martinez inspected the administration building, he wore a HAZMAT suit at Hawks’ suggestion.
“Paul had convinced me this stuff could kill me on sight,” Martinez said.
Hawks visited homes and saw what he believed could be stachybotrys, the same kind of mold that had been found underneath the Education Services Center. The mold in those homes was not actually tested at the time.
But Hawks, who has taken mold assessment classes and spent his own money to consult with doctors and scientists, said he wanted outside experts to come to the reservation to validate his claims.
Before the mold was cleaned out of the Education Services Center, Myra Johnson, the director of the culture and heritage department, would feel sick by afternoon. Some of her staff members were afraid, she recalled.
They used to handle some archival materials, such as photos and oral histories, stored in the basement where mold was found.
Johnson’s symptoms were allergy and flu-like, including sinus problems and bad headaches. Now she feels significantly better.
“Now I feel when I get a sinus headache, I know it’s an allergy because it doesn’t stay that long,” she said.
“I want people to know the tribes have made every effort to alleviate the problem. I don’t want people to panic.”
But if people do have more than usual allergy or flu symptoms, Johnson said, it’s worth going to the doctor or checking out their home or office.
Tribal officials say they know they have a mold problem in some public buildings, but the situation is less clear in reservation housing, particularly private residences.
When shown pictures of suspected mold problems inside homes, Martinez, the fire and safety chief, said some of the dark marks on walls are soot and melted candles. He agrees some of the marks are probably mold.
Workers recently gutted a house with mold problems, said Nancy Collins, the tribal sanitarian. No stachybotrys has been found in homes, Collins said. She hopes to acquire equipment to study mold samples on the reservation.
Officials annually inspect tribal housing and about 100 older housing units built with federal housing money. Mold has been in housing for years, said Chester Van Pelt, the housing director.
“It’s here, and it’s probably always going to be here,” Van Pelt said.
But people are jumping to conclusions about the kinds of mold, he said. “You tell people it’s mold – they automatically think black mold right now.”
Rudy G. Clements, the maintenance supervisor at the housing department, said the mold is on the west side of houses where the rain hits and moisture seeps through. Mold problems required extensive renovation this year in four homes built with U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money, he said.
“The only mold we’re seeing here are in our older HUD homes,” Clements said.
LeRoy Smith Sr. is suing the tribes for not properly maintaining his HUD home. He said his house flooded four times in 12 years, and he found mold in the flooring.
“It’s a money issue now, but it was never then. It was a health issue,” he said, referring to earlier years. He and his family moved out.
But Collins points out that not everyone is willing to move out.
“Having a roof over your head with mold in it is generally better than no roof at all and no place to say,” she said.
If Hawks and tribal officials see the mold problem differently, so does the medical world.
“There are no short, clear answers” to what the health impacts are of stachybotrys, said Dr. Emil Bardana, an Oregon Health & Science University professor of medicine in allergy and immunology.
Bardana said the slimy mold doesn’t become airborne very easily and has been know to be more dangerous when eaten, not just inhaled.
Whether this kind of mold can be lethal is unknown, he said, though some researchers linked the mold to infant illness and death in the mid-’90s. Dr. Eckardt Johanning, a doctor of occupational and environmental medicine in Albany, N.Y., said people come to him from all over the world to talk about mold-related health conditions.
“In general, all the molds can be, in high concentrations … a problem,” he said.
But many people react differently to molds based on their level of exposure and their health. The best way to help someone get better is to remove them from the place with mold, he said.
As for stachybotrys, “I’ve learned that this contains, not always, very potent toxins,” Johanning said.
He believes some molds can become airborne. But a little spot of mold on someone’s wall shouldn’t necessarily make someone nervous, he said.
“Many square feet, that’s when we start worrying.”
Despite what happened on the reservation, Tama Schjoll, 23, the receptionist at Warm Springs Fire & Safety, was never concerned for the health of her 3-month-old daughter or her 2-year-old son in the Early Childhood Education building, which has mold in the building’s crawl space. Both her kids are back in the building. “None of them were sick,” she said. They don’t show any symptoms of anything unusual. “They get the normal colds and flu. That’s from being around other kids.”