ATHENS — If county commissioners rushed back to their respective precincts Tuesday to work on something less complicated — like county roads — most Henderson County residents would understand. They probably didn’t run for office thinking they’d spend so much time wrestling with spores instead of ditches and road graders. But the four commissioners and County Judge Aubrey Jones spent Tuesday morning listening to more mold talk, then walked away trying to figure out what to do about the seemingly never-ending problem. Even though the much-anticipated final report hadn’t been submitted as of press time, it appears the courthouse is going to have to have an expensive new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
The thought in itself brings up some logistical nightmares for the commissioners. Like, what to do with employees while taking out an old HVAC system and installing a new one without stirring up now dormant mold; how to pay for a new system; and how to insure the mold doesn’t make a surprise return appearance once cleaning is done and a new system is installed.
Air Conditioning Problems
High levels of humidity in the courthouse have been blamed on the present HVAC system, which apparently recirculates damp air. An April 2001 report from Unified Building Services (which investigated insurance claims for mold damage) mentions “visible fungal growth” in the air conditioning system. It concludes the spores that colonized law library books came through the air conditioning system. At the same time, commissioners were left to contemplate how to deal with increasing courthouse employee health anxieties.
Dan Guiter of Southwest Indoor Environmental, the Seven Points-based company spearheading the latest environmental tests, interpreted for the court some of the results from lab tests obtained by the Pilot’s sister paper, the Athens Review, last week.
In the end, observers and participants at the meeting heard much of what they already knew: that low levels of stachybotrys spores — also known as black mold — have been discovered in the courthouse, and that high levels of aspergillus mold are present as well.
Safe for Employees?
A room full of county employees, some of them sick and coughing, sat, listened and asked for explanations in a courthouse that measures from 75 percent all the way to 100 percent humidity. Though Guiter said he felt most of the courthouse is safe for employees, he spelled out some disturbing images on the health hazards such molds can pose if not dealt with properly. The stachybotrys has the potential to affect a person’s nervous system, he said, which can result in a loss of motor skills. But he expressed less concern about stachybotrys (black mold) because of the low levels found and the difficulty for migration of this relatively large, heavy mold.
Guiter showed much more concern over the high levels of aspergillus that were detected. He told the crowd that some types of aspergillus mold are — like stachybotrys — toxic. The pending final report will reveal which, if any, of the aspergillus types in the courthouse are toxic. It is the humidity, Guiter explained, that keeps providing the environment for the unwanted mold to survive and thrive, and it is the HVAC system that creates the humidity.
Reaching for Solutions
Not all of the commissioners seemed convinced a new air conditioning system will solve the problem, especially Pct. 4 Commissioner Jerry West, who found himself in disagreement with Pct. 1 Commissioner Joe Hall. “People should know we can replace the air conditioner and possibly all of the vents,” West said. “But we’re not going to get rid of the stuff forever.”
He said he believed that if other public buildings were tested, they would be having some of the same problems they’ve seen in the courthouse. “We can get rid of it,” countered Hall, who has experience in air-conditioning systems. “The air conditioner is supposed to be a dehumidifier. It does away with the humidity. “When that happens, you do away with 99 percent of the problem. If you have a good air conditioner that works, you will not have humidity.”
Guiter explained that it’s impossible to get rid of mold, but not impossible to render it dormant. A new HVAC system would be designed to keep the humidity in the building at 45 percent or less. If that happens, experts say, the mold cannot thrive and would quickly become dormant. Guiter told the crowd many of the problems the employees are experiencing are not serious — but are simply a normal reaction to the high humidity in the building. He said the high humidity causes fatigue after a while, as well as sore throats and headaches. If those symptoms disappear within an hour of a person leaving the courthouse, he said, the problem probably isn’t mold.
But Guiter stopped short of minimizing the dangers of mold. He said one of the problems is that most of research until recently had been done on animals. He used, as an example, a horse that eats half a bale of hay containing stachybotrys. “He will lay down and die,” Guiter said. When asked how long it will take before science knows more on the effects of mold spores, Guiter told those in the crowd they may be the people who will reveal the long-term effects of such mold on human beings.
At least four county employees have moved out of the courthouse, according to County Auditor Winston Duke: Geri Strome in the auditor’s office; 173rd District court reporter Martha Lam; Pct. 6 JP Milton Adams and his clerk, Peggy Taylor. In addition, 173rd District Court Judge Jack Holland has shut down the courtroom on the second floor. Holland, however, remains in his second-floor office. Debra Flowers of the County Auditor’s Office, who has just returned from a two-month leave to receive chemotherapy treatment for thyroid cancer, said Guiter told her she should move out of the courthouse. She is working part-time at present.
Just who should be relocated and who shouldn’t, Guiter couldn’t say. But he did point out that several people in the same working environment have experienced no problems to date. Hall said the commissioners court should not try to micro-manage the different courthouse departments. “I think it’s a decision that has to be made by each person and their department head,” he said. Before considering a wholesale move of employees, commissioners want to see the final report to analyze the dangers.
Hall, who has pulmonary tuberculosis, told the crowd he was very serious about the report, and later, on the courthouse steps, he said, “I’m willing to do anything that will make it safe.”
Staff Writer Jonathan York contributed to this report.