The Georgia Southern University Eagles’ locker room wasn’t the only musty and damp place on campus this summer. Four types of mold – including the toxic mold stachybotrys – were found growing in several campus buildings following reports of allergy-like illness. “We live in a hot, humid climate and sometimes things like this happen,” said university spokesman Michael Sullivan. “Mold is something we deal with all the time, as everyone else in this part of the country does.”
In late spring, the university received a series of complaints about illness caused by exposure to mold in Health Services, Communication Arts, Williams Center and Anderson Hall, according to a May 30 memo from University Environmental Health and Safety Manager Gene Anderson. “The visual inspection of the structures identified not only fungi growth but insect fragments, dust/dirt, and flea infestation.” Anderson wrote. “The visual inspection revealed that GSU does have work spaces that were both unsanitary and unhealthy.” An Atlanta based company called Air Quality Sciences was hired to test samples of the molds to determine exactly what was growing on office walls, ceiling tiles and carpets.
The tests determined that four types of mold were growing in the buildings: cladosporium, penicillium, aspergillus and stachybotrys. Cladosporium, penicillium and aspergillus are common indoor molds. Stachybotrys is less common, but is not rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is called toxic mold because it produces toxins and has caused hemorrhaging in rare cases involving people who were taking immune suppression drugs or were exposed to the mold through a puncture wound or in massive amounts. “So far, based on what we’ve seen, in office buildings there’s no evidence to show that molds produce enough toxins to be deadly,” said CDC Medical Epidemiologist Dr. Clive Brown.
Georgia Southern’s Communication Arts building contained cladosporium, stachybotrys, penicillium and aspergillus molds. The building is more than a decade old and a temporary portable structure where communication arts classes and faculty offices are housed. The Health Center had stachybotrys and cladosporium. This facility is home to student health services. The Williams Center contained cladosporium, stachybotrys, penicillium and aspergillus.
The student newspaper is housed in this facility. Anderson Hall had penicillium, aspergillus and stachybotrys molds. This facility houses administrative offices. It was built in 1907. Dripping air conditioners, high humidity, leaking roofs, and inefficient old windows helped create the moist conditions that helped the mold flourish in the aging buildings.
“In student health services someone had stacked several cases of soft drinks. Some of the cans on the bottom ruptured and sprayed out onto the carpet and wall in the storage room,” Sullivan said. “The moisture and the sugar created mold.” Molds are very common in buildings and will grow anywhere indoors where there is moisture. Excessive humidity, water leaks and condensation in a building provide the constant moisture necessary for mold growth. Many building materials provide the nutrients that encourage molds to grow such as wallpaper, ceiling tiles, dust, carpet and wood. It is not necessary to determine if molds are toxic, according to the CDC. They should all be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal.
Experts recommend that the moisture source be stopped, moldy carpet, drywall, insulation and wood be removed and replaced and salvageable items be washed in a water and bleach solution. That’s exactly what university officials did. “Once mold was identified, the physical plant cleaned up the visible mold and some work is still ongoing to repair and prevent mold from forming again,” Sullivan said. The university is replacing the roof on the communication arts building and extensive work was done to replace carpet, wallpaper and sheets in parts of health services. But the bleach and water can’t wash away the health concerns of those who were exposed to the mold.
The initial tests don’t indicate how many molds were growing in the buildings and they don’t say what kind of health risk, if any, the mold posed. Chuck Graham of Brown and Caldwell, an environmental safety firm hired by the university, suggested on July 16 that air-quality tests be taken to determine the quality of the air in the affected areas. “To assess the exposure to building occupants, air samples from the breathing zones of the occupants should be collected,” Graham wrote in a memo to the head of university Public Safety. “Without these additional data, information regarding fungus found on surfaces may have little meaning.” The university commissioned a company to begin taking air samples last Thursday. However, surface cleanup has already been completed, the moldy tiles and carpets are gone and major replacements – such as the communication arts roof – are nearly complete.
The students, faculty and staff who reported red-eyes, scratchy throats and headaches would never know how much mold they were exposed to or how long they were exposed. “Nevertheless, what we’re concerned about is what’s happening now,” Sullivan said. Although some people complained of allergy-like symptoms, Sullivan said no one became seriously ill. Two people did request that they be moved out of the affected buildings. One has since moved back in and another, who was diagnosed as having a sensitivity to mold, will remain in her temporary office until the problem is resolved, according to Sullivan. “I don’t know of anyone who is seeking any kind of workman’s compensation claims,” he said. For mold-sensitive people, exposure to molds can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, or wheezing. Some people, such as those with serious allergies to molds, may have more severe reactions, including infections. But not all people react to molds in the same way. And there is no way to determine exactly how serious of a health risk Georgia Southern’s mold was.
According to the CDC, standards for judging what is an acceptable, tolerable or normal quantity of mold have not been established. “Most (mold reactions) are manifested as allergic reactions but this is where it becomes murky because everyone reacts differently,” Brown said. “There’s no way to say what kind of how much can make a person sick.”
Written by Jenel Few, Savannah Morning News