Sullivan, TN – Lynn Stewart of the Sullivan County School System applies adhesive around the edges of an old vent in the Sullivan East high School library as he works on the school’s project to eliminate a mold problem. (Jason Davis) The 950 students at Sullivan East High School should be able to reclaim their library today after $22,000 worth of work to remedy a mold problem there. And tonight, parents attending a Parent-Teacher Association open house will be able to question school officials about the mold situation as well as get information on work to start later in the week on about 20 classrooms that also have a problem with mold. “We have had a moisture problem for years,” Principal Mary Rouse said in her office Friday morning as she did something that has become common for her in recent weeks — being interviewed by a reporter.
Rouse said 14 parents had called concerning the situation following newspaper and television reports earlier this month. She said most just had questions or actually complimented the school system’s response, although she called two of them “irate.” Some have complained the mold is making their children sick. Officials say the problem is being handled as quickly and efficiently as they know how. “That is being addressed the very best I know how to address it,” county Schools Director John O’Dell said last week. “There’s been a little bit of hysteria over that.”
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, mold can cause allergic reactions and in some cases can be toxic. Rouse said at least one student has been particularly allergic to the mold. But some rumors about the situation have been untrue, she said. No one has been hospitalized because of exposure to the mold, and officials have no reason to believe any of the fungus is “black mold,” as at least one parent has indicated. Black mold, or stachybotrys mold, is toxic and can be deadly. Black mold has to have cellulose — usually wood or a wood product — to develop and can’t grow on concrete, metal or plastic, according to the school system’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning foreman, Kenny Goff. “The black mold has never shown up in any amount in any of our testing,” Goff said of previous mold incidents at Blountville Middle and Rock Springs Elementary schools. “We haven’t had any indication or any reason to believe it was toxic mold.” The library mold was in 200 feet of old heating and cooling duct.
Instead of a standard sheet-metal duct, it was an unlined concrete-and-block trench just below floor level and below bookshelves. O’Dell, the schools director, said a temporary shutdown of the heating and cooling system over the summer to allow for installation of a new boiler may have compounded the humidity and mold problem in the library. The library has four dehumidifiers, but the cooling system also removes moisture from the air. The library was closed last Monday, and workers started encapsulating the old ductwork that contained mold and installing new ductwork overhead. Most of the work was done by HVAC Inc. of Bristol Tennessee, although county workers did some of the work sealing the old vent area.
Now, each classroom in the affected A pod or circle area of the school will be addressed one at a time, officials said. Contract workers are to remove 1-inch insulation from the pipes carrying cooling water and replace it with 3-inch insulation. O’Dell, who plans to meet with the school’s faculty about the situation on Thursday, said that should stop mold-friendly condensation from forming and dripping onto ceiling tiles. Mold in a hallway will be addressed for the time being by replacing ceiling tiles that get wet due to a roof leak, O’Dell said. He said the roof is about four or five years old and leaks because of an installation or design flaw.
Don Morrell, carpenter foreman for the school system, said the problem appears to be a design flaw in the way the flat roof over the hallway was tied in to a roof placed over the library dome in 1998. “We had a guy come from Knoxville who guaranteed he could fix it,” Morrell said. “He never did, but he never came back to get his money, either.” ODell said the school system, struggling with a budget shortfall of $1.5 million to $3 million or more, simply doesn’t have the $250,000 needed to replace the roof this year.
School board members Jack Bales of Sullivan Gardens and Larry Harris of Colonial Heights have urged O’Dell to see whether the contractor who installed the roof has any liability to help fix the problem. The cost of fixing the classrooms and library will run about $70,000, O’Dell said. Meanwhile, the problem should subside naturally as the weather turns cooler and heating replaces air-conditioning in the building, O’Dell claimed. “All the mold problems go away when you start heating, but we want it to be gone before that,” he said.