What's in the walls at the courthouse annex?

By Lesley Jenkins and
Thomas Wilson

ljenkins@starhq.com; twilson@starhq.com

   A mold substance found in a first floor storage room of the Carter County Courthouse building last month has prompted other county employees to question whether they are breathing potentially hazardous air while on the job.
   A dark substance was detected at the county courthouse building on Main Street in October during a routine inspection of the courthouse building by an official with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) -- the state division of the federal OSHA agency. County Mayor Dale Fair said the S&ME engineering firm out of Blountville had taken samples of the mold found at the courthouse and reported it was not of a toxic variety.
   However, the discovery alarmed other county employees, particularly at the Carter County Courthouse Annex on East Elk Avenue which contains the county sheriff's department, circuit court offices and criminal court rooms.
   Samantha Burgner, youth services officer for Carter County Juvenile Court, said she had requested testing for mold spores be done at the annex building after learning of the mold spores found at the courthouse building in mid-October.
   "I was told three weeks ago the building would be tested where I work and it has not been done," said Burgner, who met with county Finance Director Jason Cody on Monday morning to discuss testing the annex. Burgner, who has worked for more than three years at the annex building, said she had been concerned about respiratory health in the annex for some time given the amount of breathing difficulty several employees at the building experienced.
   County employees working at the courthouse annex with whom Star reporters spoke said they had experienced a variety of respiratory problems including asthma, sinus infections, congestion and strep throat. Employees said their respiratory problems worsened two years ago after inmates in the Carter County Jail flooded the building's sewer system sending urine and excrement into first floor offices and courtrooms.
   While the offices' interiors were cleaned, the sewage human waste that ran between walls can only be estimated to still be present in the building.
   "I just want this testing done because there are a lot of health problems with employees in this building," said Burgner. "For myself I've been sicker in the past 3-and-a-half years than I have been in my entire life."
   Respiratory health in the workplace has become a hot-button issue in recent years. Most prevalent is the fear of "black mold" or stachybotrys chartarum, which can cause symptoms like nasal stuffiness, eye irritation or wheezing in people who are sensitive to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.
   Mold detected at the county courthouse was visible on the paneling that covers the storage room walls. The room remains sealed to entry by courthouse employees. Fair said the county was taking steps to replace the molded panel and attempt to prevent mold from reoccurring.
   "We still have to tear that part out," said Fair.
   The storage room and many offices on the first floor of the county courthouse have window ventilation. The annex building has more central heating and air ventilation. Fair said the county was coordinating with S&ME to do testing at the annex in the immediate future. He said he requested a more comprehensive survey of the annex to include the jail sheriff's department offices and court rooms.
   "John Paul Mathes said he would like to have some type of evaluation done," Fair said.
   Cody said a lab scientist with S&ME performed a visual inspection, air quality samples and swabbed test samples of the mold in the courthouse storage room. He estimated a sample survey of the courthouse annex would cost approximately $800 to $900 and would be taken out of the county's general purpose fund. He based that amount on the money spent to test the mold at the county courthouse in October.
   "You've got to find out what you are dealing with," said Cody. "We want to find out how serious it is and make sure we have a safe environment for them."
   The CDC reports that molds are very common in buildings and homes and can grow anywhere indoors where moisture is present. Molds can trigger asthma attacks in those who have the illness and can also trigger allergies in sensitive individuals. CDC reports black mold can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint.
   According to the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency, mold growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. The CDC states exposure to mold does not always result in health problems.
   For people who are allergic to mold, common effects include symptoms similar to hay fever. Certain individuals with chronic respiratory disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma) may experience difficulty breathing when exposed to mold. Also, people with immune suppression or underlying lung disease are more susceptible to fungal infections, according to CDC.
   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. In its 1993 report "Indoor Allergens," the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that airborne fungal allergens were most often associated with allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis/conjunctivitis, allergic asthma, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. In its 2000 report "Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures," IOM concluded that there is sufficient evidence of an association between exposure to mold and exacerbation of asthma. The IOM also stated that there was inadequate evidence that molds caused people to become asthmatic.
   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.
   Fair called it "speculative" to link any health problems at the annex with substances that may or may not be inside the building. He said testing would be conducted at the annex as soon as possible.