Courthouse tested for mold

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Consultants with a private engineering firm spent Wednesday morning obtaining substance and air samples at the Carter County Courthouse Annex.
   County Mayor Dale Fair spent two hours with S&ME engineering consultants testing substances found in first-floor offices and the second-floor county detention center after county employees expressed their concern about the building.
   "This is phase one," said Fair of the testing. "We'll know in about five days if it is something that we need to take extreme precaution or if it is something we can deal with right now."
   The new round of testing comes three weeks after mold was discovered in a storage room at the Carter County Courthouse building during a routine inspection by the Tennessee Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Test results also conducted by S&ME found the mold was not hazardous to humans. The room, located across the hall from county Clerk and Master Charlotte McKeehan's office, has been sealed off since the mold discovery was made.
   Samples taken Wednesday came from ceiling tiles in the Circuit Court Clerk's offices, the sheriff's department, and both courtrooms on the first floor of the annex. Samples were also taken from two jail cells in the second-floor detention center, Fair said. Two water leaks described as "very small" by Fair were detected in the ceiling during the sampling.
   The samples were sent to a lab for analysis. Fair said he expected to receive a verbal report of the sampling results early next week and a written assessment in 7 to 10 days.
   A message left for information about mold testing at the S&ME engineering office in Blountville was not immediately returned on Wednesday. An S&ME representative said the company did not typically discuss tests done for clients with third parties.
   County employees working at the courthouse told Star reporters they had experienced respiratory problems including allergy irritation, sinus infections, and a persistent cough. Employees said their respiratory problems worsened two years ago after jail inmates flooded the building's sewer system sending urine and excrement into first floor offices and courtrooms.
   Regardless of compiling several reports and indoor air quality, neither the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency nor the Department of Labor has regulatory authority over the clean up or testing for mold in public buildings.
   Neither the state nor the federal government regulates the presence of mold in buildings, according to a spokesperson from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Nashville.
   "We don't have a federal standard of regulation of mold," Milissa Reierson, a spokesperson for TOSHA, said on Tuesday. "As far as TOSHA, we can make suggestions on what they can do to clean the mold."
   Reierson said a TOSHA inspector was at the county courthouse doing a general inspection when he was made aware of potential presence of mold in a county office.
   While literally thousands of mold species have been identified, only a few have been linked to causing health problems in humans, according to the EPA. "Black mold" or stachybotrys chartarum, which can cause symptoms like nasal stuffiness, eye irritation or wheezing in people who are sensitive to it, has become a major concern in older buildings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
   Black mold made news across the nation last year when mold spores were detected in school buildings. Sullivan County education administrators temporarily closed Sullivan East High School after swab samples found black mold 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.
   EPA advises replacing ceiling tiles as well as cellulose and fiberglass insulation to prevent mold within 24 to 48 hours after water damage occurs. EPA also recommends drying wallboard and wall cavities that have sustained water damage.
   Fair said there had been "two to three" minor incidents of flooding at the jail in recent months. He said the installation of security cameras in cellblocks seemed to rectify large-scale flooding problems experienced two years ago. He said annex maintenance workers often replaced ceiling tiles when the tiles were damaged or stained.
   The CDC reports that molds are very common in buildings and homes and can grow anywhere indoors where moisture is present. Black mold can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint.
   EPA publications state that there is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment, and controlling moisture should prevent mold growth. The effects of indoor air quality problems are often nonspecific symptoms rather than clearly defined illnesses. Symptoms commonly attributed to IAQ problems include headache, sinus congestion, cough, sneezing, eye, nose, and throat irritation.