State Wades Into Oak Ridge Mold Mystery

by Paul C. Clark
Staff Writer
June 25, 2009

The pressure on Guilford County Schools to solve the mystery of health symptoms reported by students and parents at Oak Ridge Elementary School is increasing.

Students and parents at the school have reported persistent and increasingly severe symptoms at Oak Ridge since it was completely rebuilt in 2005.

On June 15, the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) , which investigates complaints of hazardous workplace environments, wrote to Guilford County Schools with the first official complaint from Oak Ridge employees and parents, ordering the school system to investigate the conditions at Oak Ridge and report its finding to the NCDOL by June 24.

The complaint released by the NCDOL said that employees at the school are exposed to mold inside the HVAC unit, walls and carpet of the school, and that employees are experiencing adverse health effects, including skin rashes, headaches, nosebleeds, fever, blurred vision, sore throats and fatigue.

The NCDOL wrote to Oak Ridge Elementary School on June 15 stating that the agency has not yet determined whether or not the hazards alleged in the complaint exist, and isn’t conducting an independent investigation of the school at this time. But the agency ordered the school to conduct an investigation, and to correct any environmental hazards found.

“Within seven working days of your receipt of this letter, please advise us, in writing, by certified mail of your findings and of the action you have taken,” the NCDOL wrote. “Your response should be detailed, stating specifically what actions you have taken to correct each hazard. You should enclose any supporting documentation, such as monitoring results, equipment purchases, photographs, etc.”

The NCDOL also warned the school system not to retaliate against any employee involved in filing the claim, citing the North Carolina statute against such retaliation.

The NCDOL wrote that the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Act allows it to issue citations and penalties to the school if the school system doesn’t adequately respond and the NCDOL has to investigate the building itself.

The NCDOL wrote, “If we do not receive a response from you within seven working days indicating that appropriate action has been taken, or that no hazard exists and why, an inspection may be conducted.”

The NCDOL’s involvement is just the latest chapter in the Oak Ridge saga, which dates to the 2005 rebuilding of the school. In addition to the health symptoms, parents and teachers at the school have reported persistent water leaks in the building since then, and internal and third-party inspections began turning up mold in the floors, bathrooms and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system of the school at least as early as 2007, the earliest date for which records are yet available.

Some parents and teachers at the school accuse Guilford County Schools of inaction on Oak Ridge. Others say the school system has been responsive, but obviously has not yet found the cause of the problem, which, according to a survey of symptoms released by the Guilford County Department of Public Health on June 12, increased between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years.

One toxicologist, Jack Thrasher, said Guilford County Schools hasn’t done specific enough tests to identify any mold-related health risks at Oak Ridge.

Thrasher is a California toxicologist who has reviewed some of the test results done over the past two years at Oak Ridge. Unlike Linda May, the self-proclaimed mold expert who has grabbed the spotlight in recent weeks in the Oak Ridge controversy, Thrasher provided a resume that lends credence to his opinions. He’s a Ph.D., not a medical doctor, but his resume lists the things you’d expect to find in an environmental expert: a 1964 doctorate in human cellular biology from the University of California School of Medicine, professorships at the University of California School of Medicine and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals on the medical effects of environmental hazards, bearing titles such as, “On the Neuropsychological and Electrocortical Impacts of Mixed Mold Exposure,” and numerous memberships in scientific societies.

We haven’t verified all of the material on Thrasher’s resume – news outlets rarely do, unless, as with May, there are reasons to doubt a person’s qualifications – but we have no reason to doubt them. Like May, Thrasher works as a consultant on issues of mold and other environmental contaminants. Unlike May, Thrasher shows a precise knowledge of the peer-reviewed literature on mold, the chemical and biological tests for mold exposure, and the medical effects of exposure to mold and other contaminants. He may be right or wrong, but he’s not speaking from ignorance.

Thrasher reviewed some of the tests done by Workplace Hygiene, the industrial-hygiene firm hired by Guilford County Schools to test the air and carpets at Oak Ridge, and said he found them lacking. “Those were all standard testing, but it’s incomplete testing,” he said.

Thrasher said that the tape-lift and air tests done at Oak Ridge are fine, but should be followed up with dust tests to measure the school on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s “Environmental Relative Moldiness Index.” Such DNA tests of mold found in dust identify 36 types of mold more precisely than air tests and tape lifts, and supporters of dust tests say they are more useful in diagnosing the danger level posed by mold in a building. Others say dust tests are useful, but don’t correlate directly to known health symptoms – and that positive results on the dust test show a need for more investigation, rather than proving a causal effect by the mold on reported health symptoms.

Thrasher reviewed the vacuum-sample tests and tape lifts done on carpets at Oak Ridge and said they were probably valid.

“That would indicate to me that there is very little mold being held by the carpets, and I see nothing wrong with that,” Thrasher said. “But what I’m concerned about is what’s in the HVAC system.”

Thrasher said that, in addition to the dust tests, Guilford County Schools should do bulk tests on any mold-contaminated building materials found at Oak Ridge. In other words, if the school system finds a mold-contaminated section of wall board, it should do DNA testing on that part of the wall.

Thrasher also suggested that the school system do a gas chromatographic mass spectrometer test for microtoxins on samples taken at the school, using even more specialized high pressure/performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). He said, “It’s a complex test which can be done, but which they appear not to have done.”

Thrasher said that dust tests are more reliable than tests for mold spores, such as Guilford County Schools has had done, because specialists have demonstrated in studies that mold-related microtoxins are found in fine particulate matter, not just in spores – and that contaminated dust can enter the alveoli of human lungs and thus enter the bloodstream.

May is trying to sell parents and teachers at Oak Ridge DNA tests for human urine. Thrasher said that DNA tests on human tissue, or on mold-contaminated materials, are valid – but that he doesn’t consider the type of test May describes valid.

“I doubt very much that you’re going to find mold DNA in the urine, unless there’s severe kidney infection,” he said. “The woman doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Thrasher said that a test for T-2 microtoxin – a microtoxin found in molds and, in a highly purified form, used as a weapon – has been developed, but by Dr. Dennis Hooper of RealTime Laboratories of Dallas. He said that test has not yet been approved for use in humans.

Brian Kareis, an industrial hygienist with Workplace Hygiene, agreed with most of Thrasher’s assessments, and welcomed his input on future tests at the school.

“Most of the typical things have been done,” Kareis said. “You can test and test and test, but unless you have a direction, you’re kind of at a loss. I’m certainly willing to listen to an outside expert.”

Kareis said that most of what he’s read indicates that microtoxins stay in mold spores and shouldn’t be found in loose particles. He said the samples taken so far have been run through a mass spectrometer, but not using the newer HPLC method, or testing for DNA sequences. He said that the DNA tests are expensive, and tend to err on the side of generating positive findings that may not actually be causing health problems.

Kareis said many of the connections claimed between mold and health problems have not yet been proven, and that federal and state regulations have not yet caught up with the mold health debate by establishing standards.

“There’s no regulatory basis for any of this,” he said. “And a lot of it comes down to individual susceptibility. It’s tricky to interpret that type of stuff, unless you have a huge amount of a particular type of mold.”

Kareis said he hadn’t heard that DNA tests are available for mold samples taken from HVAC systems. “I’ll look into that,” he said. “That’s a good idea.”

Documents released by Guilford County Schools this week show that the school system had Oak Ridge inspected or tested 13 times for environmental issues between October 2007 and June 2009.

The documents show that remediation work was done at the school by outside contractors four times during that period: in July and August 2008, when Triad Engineering and Lomax Construction installed a $534,000 dehumidification system at the school; in February 2009, when an outside contractor installed a $5,597 variable frequency drive to increase the amount of outside air coming into air handlers; in April 2009, when Right Touch Interiors removed carpets and replaced them with tile for $990; in May 2009, when Get Right Interiors did another two rounds of carpet replacement for $11,000.

Here’s a partial timeline of the development of the Oak Ridge environmental problems, going back to 2007. Guilford County Schools officials said they are gathering documents on any earlier reports of air-quality problems, tests or remediation before then:

The new Oak Ridge Elementary opened in August 2005. Parents and teachers have said that they reported water leaks and moldy smells at the school beginning soon after the opening.

After reports of indoor air quality problems, Guilford County Schools on Oct. 25, 2007, took air samples and tape-lift samples from carpets in a classroom, at a cost of $780. The tests indicated slightly elevated mold-spore counts. Guilford County Schools hired Kareis of Workplace Hygiene to do additional tests for carbon dioxide and mold, looking particularly at the air handlers and vacuum pump in the HVAC system, at a cost of $2,101.

The Workplace Hygiene tests found microbial growth in four air handlers, and the school system hired All Kleen to clean the air handlers, at a cost of $3,507.

In July and August 2008, the dehumidification system was installed.

On Oct. 20, 2008, tape-lift samples found microbial growth in three air handlers. All Kleen cleaned the air handlers at a cost of $6,500.

On Oct. 24, 2008, vacuum pump sampling found mold spores in carpeting at the school. Hernandez Cleaners cleaned the carpets in three classrooms and the main office, at a cost of $1,380.

In January 2009, more indoor air quality complaints were made, and a test of the HVAC system found carbon-dioxide levels higher than recommended in the school’s G Wing.

In February 2009, a variable frequency drive was installed to increase the amount of fresh air going into the G Wing.

In April 2009, the building was inspected by David Lipton, of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The concrete slab on which the school rests was also tested for moisture in six places, and the moisture content of the concrete was found to be within acceptable limits.

In May 2009, the carpets were replaced with tile in three rooms, and Workplace Hygiene did additional tests for airborne mold. Those tests found mold levels “well below the outdoor total mold-spore counts.” A second round of tests found trace amounts of mold in carpets and levels of spores in the air below those in the outside air. The tests also found higher than recommended levels of volatile organic compounds in six of 20 classrooms. Another round of carpet cleaning was done.

Thrasher questioned the results of those tests, saying that high levels of alcohol found probably indicated the use of cleaning fluids, which could have invalidated the tests. Kareis acknowledged the possibility, and said he had warned Guilford County Schools of the possibility.

The most recent water leak report by parents is of a stain on the inside wall of the school’s gym. Kareis said he checked on that report and found that there is efflorescence on the wall of the gym. Efflorescence is a mineral deposit that occurs on concrete and cinderblocks in the presence of moisture. Kareis said Guilford County Schools employees were investigating the situation.

The next chapter in the Oak Ridge mystery may come this month, when a building health evaluation team from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inspects the school.

Kareis said that NIOSH will use a borescope, a fiber-optic wire with an attached camera, to look inside the walls.

“The trick with a school, unfortunately, is that typically the walls are insulated,” he said. “When you poke your scope into the walls, all you see is yellow.”

If that doesn’t work, NIOSH will probably cut into the walls to take samples, Kareis said.

Mold is known to cause health problems in people allergic to it, and thought to cause health problems in people that aren’t, although experts contacted said the science of symptoms in the non-allergic is still unsettled.

In 2004, a report by the US Institute of Medicine concluded that there is an association between indoor mold and respiratory effects, such as exacerbation of indoor asthma. It found insufficient evidence to link indoor mold with other conditions, including cancer and pulmonary hemorrhages.

A September 2008 review of medical literature by the US Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that there is a plausible link between pulmonary hemorrhages in infants and exposure to some mold-produced toxins, and called for more research.

About Sharon Kramer

Hi, I'm an advocate for integrity in health marketing and in the courts.
This entry was posted in Environmental Health Threats, Health - Medical - Science, Mold and Politics, Mold Litigation, Toxic Mold and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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