by Susan Parrott, Associated Press
Sept. 14, 2002, 8:45PM
ATHENS — An insatiable green menace lurks in State District Judge Jack Holland’s courtroom.
It creeps from behind the wooden benches, across the attorneys’ tables, and into the judge’s very seat. But this heinous offender can’t be locked behind bars or issued costly citations.
Aspergillus, a fuzzy green mold, has taken over this East Texas courthouse and terrorized workers complaining of headaches, heightened allergies and difficulty breathing.
And now, another insidious irritant has joined the fray — traces of the black mold stachybotrys, a potentially lethal fungus.
Although samples of stachybotrys were found in isolated pipes above the ceiling, both it and the green mold clearly visible on courthouse furnishings are feeding on the dampened air of the 89-year-old building’s faulty air-conditioning system. The system allows humidity levels in some parts of the Henderson County courthouse to remain at levels up to 90 percent during the summer.
The district courtroom has been closed since July. While Holland has kept his office in the building, court proceedings are being temporarily held at another county building.
The only way to eradicate the mold is to replace the building’s heat and air system, tear down some walls, replace portions of contaminated air ducts and wipe the mold from the furniture, air vents and records, said Dan Guiter, a consultant with Southwest Indoor Environment.
County officials say they expect to spend $800,000 or more for the mold remediation and to replace the air system. That includes about $10,000 to clean and temporarily store 3,500 law library books that were replaced just last year for about $28,000 due to mold contamination.
Guiter said portions, but not all, of the courthouse will need to be vacated during the cleanup, which will take several months after the air system is replaced.
Geri Strome, a purchasing agent for the county auditor, said she wishes all the employees could be moved from the building until the mold is gone. Strome has been working from home since her doctor told her that the mold contributes to chronic respiratory problems. She said she has suffered memory loss, headaches, laryngitis, itchy eyes, rash and a persistent cough.
“Until it’s cleared up, it’s not safe for anybody,” she said.
County Auditor Winston Duke said his staff’s productivity has been cut in half, as workers use more sick time and other forms of leave to avoid working in the courthouse.
But County Judge Aubrey Jones downplayed the health risks and said fear of the unknown has made workers blame any illness on the mold.
“This building is probably no more risky than any other public building,” he said.
Still, he fears workers will sue the county for hazardous work conditions or file excessive workers’ compensation complaints.
“The employees are in a fit over it,” Jones said. “Mold has been around for thousands of years. Now it’s hit the media and some are playing it up like a plague.”
Deadra Harris, a clerk in the county attorney’s office, insists the symptoms are real. While she generally works through any discomfort, she worries about possible long-term health problems.
“We get headaches,” she said. “After we’ve been here about 15 minutes, we start popping Tylenol. Then when we go outside to the fresh air, it goes away.”
Both kinds of mold may have been present in the courthouse since at least 2000, though county officials said initially they only believed aspergillus was present.
A cleaning of the building’s second floor courtroom in December 2000 eradicated the molds. But the basement, first and third floors of the courthouse remained unchecked, and the courtroom was soon visibly recontaminated.
Since then, at least five courthouse employees have been removed from the building because of health problems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the molds may cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation or wheezing and that some people have more severe reactions when exposed to large amounts of molds at work. Some people with chronic illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs, the CDC said.