Mold discovered in courthouse prompts county probe

Photo By Rick Harris
County Mayor Dale Fair has requested engineers to examine a mysterious substance growing in a storage room at the county courthouse.

By Thomas Wilson
A substance resembling mold found in a storage room at the Carter County Courthouse has relocated one county employee and has the county's top executive seeking answers.
County Mayor Dale Fair said an agent of the Tennessee Occupational Health and Safety Administration (TOSHA) contacted him late Wednesday morning after discovering the substance in a first-floor storage room and an annex office across from the Clerk and Master's office.
"We're not going to take any chances," said Fair, who had contacted an engineering firm to test the substance. "We hope to get them here by (Thursday) and no one will be in the room until then."
The composition of the substance remains unknown. Also unknown is whether the substance is "black mold", which can cause symptoms like nasal stuffiness, eye irritation or wheezing in people who are sensitive to it, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Patches of the dark, powdery mold are visible on the paneling that covers the storage room walls. A small amount of the substance is also visible on the wall of the office. A musty scent similar to that of a basement was noticeable in the office and storage room on Wednesday.
The storage room is located beneath the brick steps leading to the second floor of the courthouse. Filing cabinets filled with government paperwork are stored there.
Fair said the building maintenance staff had placed a dehumidifier in the storage room to reduce moisture as much as possible. He also said given the "cellar-like" atmosphere of the room, moisture could develop either through water seeping between the bricks or from lack of ventilation.
"We're going to take off the paneling when they inspect the mold," he said.
One Clerk and Master employee did work in the office but the general public was not typically exposed to the area, Fair said. The employee has been moved out of the office and the storage building has been closed, he added.
Black mold, or Stachybotrys chartarum, made news across the nation last year when mold spores were detected in school buildings including schools in Northeast Tennessee. Sullivan County Schools Director John O'Dell ordered Sullivan East High School to be closed after swab tests showed black mold was present in five of nine classrooms tested. Bristol Tennessee City Schools were also forced to relocate students after black mold was discovered at Holston View Elementary School.
Another possible contributor to the problem is the ventilation system on the ground floor of the courthouse. The old portion of the courthouse is heated and cooled through window air conditioning and electric heating units. Ventilation does not carry air from most first floor offices to other parts of the courthouse.
During the rainy summer season, Fair said the gutters along the oldest section of the courthouse building leaked heavily. Rainfall caused substantial water runoff near the courthouse building's facade near the veterans monument at East Elk Avenue and Main Street. The county appropriated funds to replace the gutters in its fiscal year 2004 budget. Fair said an optimum plan would be the installation of a central ventilation system for the entire courthouse.
"We ought to look at doing away with all of them and getting central heat and air conditioning," he said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the key to mold control is moisture control. When mold spores land on a damp spot indoors, they may begin growing and digesting their "host" in order to survive. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, and foods. When excessive moisture or water accumulates indoors, mold growth will often occur, particularly if the moisture problem remains undiscovered or un-addressed. There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture, according to CDC.
The CDC reports that molds are very common in buildings and homes and can grow anywhere indoors where moisture is present. Molds are microscopic fungi that live on plant or animal matter. Researchers with various public health agencies including the National Institutes for Health and CDC estimate that tens of thousands to perhaps three hundred thousand or more species of mold fungi exist.
Molds can trigger asthma attacks in those who have the illness and can also trigger allergies in sensitive individuals. CDC reports the Stachybotrys chartarum is a greenish-black mold that can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint. Growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding.
Public health agencies report that mold can be cleaned off surfaces with a weak bleach solution. Mold under carpets typically requires that the carpets be removed. Once mold starts to grow in insulation or wallboard the only way to deal with the problem is by removal and replacement, according to the CDC.
The old section of the Carter County Courthouse was built in the mid-1850s. Two additions have been added to the structure. The county commission voted to update the county's existing TOSHA regulations last month. Fair said he expects engineers to arrive at the courthouse today to collect samples of the substance.