02/26/04 — Educating educators about mold

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Educating educators about mold

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 26, 2004 1:59 PM

Mold and asbestos. Two words that can send people into high gear.

But there is a lot of misinformation out there, says the safety coordinator for Wayne County public schools. Allen Smith has been going to classes about the mold problem for the last three years.

"We know this is an issue," he said. "We're trying to stay on top of it."

Smith had worked in air quality control for years before he joined the school system in 1999. When the safety director retired, the position was changed to safety coordinator. Smith assumed the role last October.

It is not a desk job. Smith says he spends a lot of time in the field, where he handles environmental issues, underground storage tanks, asbestos and mold. Mold is an especially hot topic in the schools and came to the forefront earlier this week during a community meeting with school board members in northern Wayne County.

Many are not educated on the subject, Smith said, which sometimes means fingers get pointed in the wrong direction.

"Mold is a natural substance," he said. "It's in the air."

He said it takes three things to grow mold: temperature, moisture and relative humidity.

"When you have a controlled environment like a school, a house or a building and you're turning outside air in, you're conditioning the space," he said. "What we're being told today is our newer buildings are not breathing as well as the older ones built years ago."

Despite efforts to make buildings airtight, he said, people are going in and out of them or students leave a window open, bringing the possibility of mold.

"You have to have the right conditions," he said. "We live in an environment where temperature and humidity are going to be there."

He said there are thousands of types of mold, the most toxic being black mold. There can be preventive efforts but it is hard to control the environment because mold is a natural occurrence.

"You can't stop it," he said. "It's been around forever. In our area of the United States, we're just going to have it."

Because the world is 80 percent water, he said, there will always be humidity. People need look no farther than their own homes to find mold.

"Under a house, you have unconditioned space," he said. "That's the first place that you'll have mold. ... It just may not be seen."

The school system has several guidelines to follow to help prevent mold and uses an indoor air-quality kit provided by the EPA. Smith said that a video has also been distributed to principals to educate teachers and staff on how to handle the situation.

The down side is that there is not a standard of permissible limits for mold.

"The government doesn't really have a ruling now of what the limits are," he said. "They're doing research.

"We know what it is in asbestos but there's no level standard or threshold for mold."

He said he has been told that the EPA is expected to set a permissible exposure limit by 2005 or 2006. In the meantime, the school system continues to do its part, school officials say.

"We're doing what we can to keep the rooms clean, keep the trash out -- that's a big item right there," he said. "We're trying to keep things off the floor, keep it as sanitary as possible."

The same is true for asbestos. Even though a 1988 law stopped the manufacturing of asbestos in this country, it can still be imported. Smith said it can be found in such things as brake linings and brake pads, and that last year in a home supply store he saw a box that contained asbestos floor tile.

He said a lot of people are exposed to asbestos on a daily basis without realizing it.

"Research shows you can go to any intersection in the U.S., take a soil sample and find some asbestos," he said.

In 1988, the Asbestos Hazardous Emergency Response Act, mandated by the Federal government and EPA, required that all school systems be tested for asbestos.