Mold, hiding inside the walls and ceilings of public buildings, especially schools, is more common than previously thought. This is because it is often difficult to detect, and health and safety regulators have been slow to react.
In Weaverville California, a quaint, all-American school district near Sacramento, respiratory issues were becoming all too common in students. Parents reported asthma flair-ups and migraines as common reasons for their child being absent from school. Doctors in the community chalked these cases up to being caused by the grind of day-to-day life (i.e. stress from being back at school, auto-immune responses from suddenly being exposed to all those people again, puberty). It turns out they were wrong.
Out of sight, out of mind
One day, someone reported a mold spot in the cafeteria of Trinity School in Weaverville. The investigations that followed of the site were jaw-dropping. Most buildings on the school campus had, to some degree, been contaminated with mold. Often, it would show up behind drywall, above ceiling tiles, or under floorboards. Subsequent airborne mold tests revealed that there were in fact high mold concentrations in the air of many of the contaminated buildings.
How could something like this happen? Surely, the safety inspections conducted on these sites are supposed to catch things like this before they get out of control, right? Not so much. Mold can be notoriously difficult to detect.
Mold is a species of fungi. It is not uncommon for fungi to thrive in dark conditions. What often happens is that, in the event of a leaky pipe, for example, moisture can collect inside ceilings and walls. Because there are often organic components present in most building materials (i.e. wood), the mold spores now have a food source that they can feed on as they multiply. Unfortunately, these onset mold colonies tend to go unnoticed because many state-sanctioned inspection protocols rely on visual evidence only. This means that an annual walk-through by a professional inspector may fail to generate any evidence of mold because it is not visible in plain sight.
Mold takes flight: airborne particles
Adverse health effects tend to show up once the colony of spores gets some inertia behind it. Typically, they release some spores into the surrounding air, where they are then inhaled by the building’s occupants. The higher the concentration of spores in the parent colony, the higher the concentration of airborne ones will result. The greater the presence of airborne spores, the greater the likelihood of people inhaling them. In the case of the children at Trinity School in Weaverville, the airborne mold was exacerbating inflammatory conditions like asthma, and also causing respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.
Time to update the protocols
At this point, the solution seems somewhat obvious – if the mold cannot be seen upon visual inspection, and the problem is ultimately one of airborne contamination, why not simply test the air for mold spores? Parents and school administrators in Weaverville posed this question to local and state authorities. They responded by underscoring their reluctance to use air quality tests because such tests are expensive and difficult to interpret. This line of thinking might also explain why California, to date, has no formal minimum thresholds for airborne air mold levels in schools.
There are many techniques and strategies used by professional mold abatement companies that go far beyond the efforts of feeble visual inspection. If a test reveals high levels of airborne mold, the next step is often to gather samples from the source to determine what specific species of mold is present. This will help determine the most effective remedy to be used. Modern mold remediation has become less dependent on harsh chemicals like bleach and chlorine. Often, simple heat treatments are enough to eradicate most species of mold. The real trouble is containing the high concentration of airborne spores that come out when a parent colony is exposed during removal.
The use of negative air machines is a must for containing the spread of airborne spores. These work by creating a differential in air pressure so as to prevent the movement of air from one space to another. Suppose one classroom, in particular, has a high concentration of spores compared to other neighboring ones. Instead of sealing off the entire block of rooms, a negative air machine could be used to create a barrier of negative pressure. The negative air pressure would prevent the airborne spores from escaping into the adjacent rooms, hence making it safe to keep them operational during abatement. Another scenario could be that a specific space that everyone uses, like the main foyer near the front doors, for example, could be highly contaminated relative to the rest of the building. In such a case, a negative air pressure barrier would be ideal for keeping the rest of the building operational.
It’s all about the air
As buildings age, the sources for potential mold contamination become innumerable (i.e. leaky plumbing, condensation on windowsills, faulty roofing, dirty HVAC coils). Most of these are impossible to detect from a visual inspection until they have become quite advanced, and highly expensive to deal with. In the long run, the most economical preventative strategy would be to test the air for mold spores at regular intervals. In the event that a particular room or zone tests high, there is no need to think that the whole building will need to be vacant during the remediation process. The benefit of containment structures and negative air machines can keep everyone else safe while the toxic mold gets taken away. Maybe more school districts in California should consider adopting this kind of strategy, instead of relying on visual inspections and then acting surprised when the air in their buildings is toxic.
Alliance Environmental has completed over 25,000 mold remediation projects across California. Our crew members follow all guidelines and protocols as stipulated by the EPA, OSHA and other regulatory standards. Request a Quote for your project by contacting one of our locations today.