How Much Mold?

Is AISD Finding Only the Tip of the Stachybotrys?

Teresa and Nika Van Deusen in front of Maplewood Elementary
Teresa and Nika Van Deusen in front of Maplewood Elementary (Photo By John Anderson)

Two years ago, if you'd asked Teresa Van Deusen to identify "Stachybotrys," she would've responded with little more than a blank stare. Ask her the same thing today, she's likely to give you an earful: It's mold, she'll begin, and an especially nasty variety. Indeed, Stachybotrys is one of several molds -- including Aspergillus fumigatus, Alternaria, and certain species of Penicillium -- that have been identified as "toxic," because they emit mycotoxins that can cause allergic or even pathogenic responses in people, especially those suffering with respiratory problems or compromised immune systems. Research on the links between mold exposure and physical ailments is ongoing, and the incomplete status of the research can be frustrating for those directly affected.

What's worse, Van Deusen says, is that she believes Stachybotrys is growing in her daughter's former classroom at Maplewood Elementary School -- and she doesn't believe the Austin Independent School District is doing much of anything to address the problem. As Van Deusen sees it, AISD's unsophisticated mold-testing practices, combined with a general lack of understanding about mold issues, an ongoing failure to track health complaints that could be related to indoor air quality, and years of less-than-diligent maintenance on district schools, may make AISD a very moldy district -- subject to a widespread problem Van Deusen doesn't believe can be sufficiently addressed with the recently approved $49.3 million health and safety bond (see "Bond Package for Mold").

District officials disagree with Van Deusen. They have been more than responsive to her concerns, they say, and argue that the results of district tests -- as well as those conducted by an outside consultant (hired at Van Deusen's insistence) -- show that Maplewood's indoor air quality is just fine.

"Ms. Van Deusen first came to us and said there was a mold problem at Maplewood," said Edward Fuentes, AISD's deputy superintendent who oversees, among other things, the district's construction and maintenance operations. "The problem is, she was the only person who said we had a mold problem. There has been a lot of testing and they have found nothing." Well, not quite nothing. Fuentes admits that the consultant did find mold in a couple of the school's classrooms but, he said, the problem was taken care of over spring break, when sheet rock in two rooms -- including one Van Deusen complained about -- was replaced. The results of post-construction tests, administered by the same outside consultant, are expected any day. Brad Shaver, assistant director of maintenance for AISD, agrees that the district is still learning how to better identify, test, interpret, and deal with possible mold problems -- but he insists the district is actively seeking to improve on all levels.

Just eight schools are listed on the bond program with funds earmarked for mold remediation efforts, while another 81 schools will receive repairs associated with "water intrusion" -- intrusion that experts say can be a harbinger of mold problems. Yet Van Deusen is adamant about the existing mold problem at Maplewood, and Maplewood is not on the remediation list. If she's right about Maplewood, that might suggest that the district's mold problem may be much larger than already acknowledged.

Van Deusen said she's not sure that school officials can assure district parents that potential mold problems are under control. Further, she said, anecdotal information she has gathered from parents and teachers at other schools back up her assertions.

Van Deusen admits she has had a difficult time getting others to join her call to arms. "I know I look like an ass," she said. "I know I just look like I'm belly-aching, but I feel like this is totally being treated irresponsibly. The only time I get like this is when I seriously think the welfare of a child is at stake."


Green and Black and Orange

Van Deusen wouldn't know much about mold if she hadn't gotten so sick as a result of a mold infestation in her East Austin home. "Two years ago, at home, I collapsed and completely lost consciousness," she said, "out of the blue." After the collapse, her physical symptoms began to escalate -- from migraines and light sensitivity to full-blown seizures. For a full year, doctors were unable to find anything wrong with her -- until insurance adjusters, called out to inspect a leak in the roof of her house, declared that her home was infested with mold and would have to be torn down. "I took that data to my general practitioner who said [the presence of mold] would explain everything." As a result of her experience, Van Deusen said, she has become "highly sensitized" to mold exposure.

Last fall she was dismayed to find that her symptoms were triggered every time she set foot in Maplewood Elementary, where her youngest daughter was entering the fifth grade. Over the years she has spent a lot of time on the Maplewood campus. Both of her daughters attended Maplewood; she is a former PTA president, and has logged numerous additional on-campus hours helping run afterschool programs. In September of 2001, her experience on the campus dovetailed with her newfound mold sensitivity into what she believes was an inevitable conclusion: Maplewood has a serious mold problem. "Intellectually, I am more sensitized to the issue," she said. "But I've spent a lot of time on that campus, so I am [also] familiar with the water leaks." And the school has leaks, she said, almost everywhere. Van Deusen repeatedly complained to district officials, she said, but nothing was done. "I complained and complained and nobody was writing it down."

Finally, in late October, AISD environmental safety officers visited Maplewood and conducted a series of mold tests -- and the tests seemed to indicate that Maplewood was not suffering from any mold-related problems.

If you find [mold spores] anywhere, you need to know where it's coming from … so you know if it is a problem or not. -- Vince Torres, Texas Institute for the Indoor Environment
"If you find [mold spores] anywhere, you need to know where it's coming from … so you know if it is a problem or not." -- Vince Torres, Texas Institute for the Indoor Environment (Photo By John Anderson)

But then, just after Thanksgiving break of last year, Van Deusen's daughter Nika began complaining that she was suffering from headaches while at school. Van Deusen said she was initially wary of her daughter's complaints, but began to believe that Nika's headaches were triggered by mold exposure. "So I watched Mondays more closely," she said, because the school is closed up on weekends, and Monday is the most likely day for high indoor mold concentration. Nika's symptoms indeed increased on Monday afternoons.

"Then, on the Tuesday after MLK day [Jan. 22], [Nika] was running a 102-degree fever, she was throwing up, and exhibiting light sensitivity," she said. "Five hours after [she was home] she was fine. I had to accept the fact that something in her room was triggering her." Van Deusen went back to Maplewood, into Nika's fifth-grade classroom, and conducted her own mold test, using a Petri dish and a cotton swab. "I came up with five kinds [of mold], including Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Stachybotrys, three of the toxic molds" -- molds she said she cultured by swiping the surface of her daughter's desk. "By Friday I had this Petri dish covered with fuzzy green and black and orange molds."

She complained again, and on Jan. 25 and 27, AISD came back out to test. This time, the testing revealed something odd. District officials conducted four tests in the fifth-grade class room. Three were fairly benign, but the fourth was strange: after cleaning the surface of Nika's desk, and taking a swab sample of the surface, lab results showed that 37 "Colony Forming Units" of Stachybotrys spores -- spores that, when incubated, become visible mold growth -- were found on the desk surface.

According to a Feb. 25 memo from Angela Daughtry, AISD's environmental safety foreman, to Maplewood Principal Pamela Gray, the January testing was done to "identify the type of mold[s] and to evaluate whether or not [the tested area] is an active and or a probable mold growth site," Daughtry wrote. And while the letter informed Gray that the lab results indicated the "contaminated area is not a mold growth site" [italics in original], it also said that because of the one positive sample -- the test that recorded Stachybotrys spores on the desk -- another sample would be taken.

However, additional sampling was never conducted, the memo added, because Nika's desk was removed from the room. "Periodically, we receive lab results that are unacceptable or questionable, therefore, it is the District policy to resample," Daughtry wrote to Gray. "The re-sampling did not occur because someone from your staff removed this desk from the classroom." However, the letter went on, "overall the air sample results of the lab report indicates the type of mold(s) identified in your building's air are lower than the outside air" [italics in original].

Van Deusen points to this specific test as a sure sign that AISD's sampling techniques and testing protocols are less than perfect. First of all, she points out, the plastic-covered desktop would not be a "mold growth site" anyway -- molds need water and a food source, like paper or wood, to grow. Second, the absence of a single desk would not preclude testing other nearby desks to see if similar numbers of Stachybotrys mold spores could be obtained. "But they didn't bother to try and do anything more," Van Deusen said. "This data is not being paid attention to. It's barely being gathered."


Don't Look Up

Vince Torres, assistant director of UT's Texas Institute for the Indoor Environment, knows about mold and he knows about AISD. Torres was instrumental in focusing the district's attention on the now-remediated mold problems at Hill Elementary. Most recently he served as one of the co-chairs of the district's $49.3 million health and safety bond proposal.

While generally more charitable to AISD's testing methods, Torres still finds the Maplewood results a bit puzzling. "If you find [mold spores] anywhere, you need to know where it's coming from," he said. "You need to know, concretely, where it is coming from so you know if it is a problem or not." And since Stachybotrys spores are heavier than your average mold spore, he said, it is likely that the Stachybotrys found on the Maplewood desk actually came from the ceiling. "The first thing I would've done is look up," he said.

Torres said that a major problem with current mold tests is a failure to mention the conditions under which the tests were conducted and the protocols followed when conducting the tests -- problems he said could also result in some of the peculiarities in the Maplewood and other AISD mold test results he was shown by the Chronicle. Rigorous standards for testing procedures could have helped identify the actual source of the Stachybotrys spores found on the desk.

But results of other AISD tests also show logical inconsistencies. According to the results of mold tests AISD conducted in 2000 at Kealing Junior High, the number of living mold spores collected in the air was higher than the total number of spores taken from the air, a conclusion very difficult to explain. "If you don't [have standard testing measures] then you are going to get questions because it won't make sense," he said. "In all fairness to AISD, I really think they're trying, but this expertise just does not come overnight. AISD is still feeling around in this regard. They still need good, quality outside consultants to come in so they don't continue to make the same mistakes or further confuse the issue."

Torres said one problem is that the development of testing protocols, and research on the physical effects of mold exposure, is ongoing. Further confounding the matter is that there are no state-mandated guidelines or licensing standards for mold testing. He added that there are already effective tools available for monitoring indoor air quality, such as the "Tools for Schools" program designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- a program he said he hopes AISD will implement.

This photo, taken from an Environmental Protection Agency report, shows the extreme end of what can happen with unchecked mold damage.
This photo, taken from an Environmental Protection Agency report, shows the extreme end of what can happen with unchecked mold damage.

It is fair to say that a program like the "Tools for Schools" (information available online at www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/index.html) could also have helped the district identify earlier the mold problems at Hill Elementary. Hill's mold problem, which was discovered in early 2000 and eventually cost $4.6 million to fix, was not immediately obvious, Torres said. It wasn't until Torres' wife showed him a memo from Hill's principal that Torres began to suspect a problem at the elementary school, and he became actively involved in helping the district identify it.

"I got home one day and my wife said you have to read this memo," Torres recalled. "And the memo went on about how the three teachers that were taken to the hospital were all fine. I said, 'Whoa, you've got a problem here.'" So Torres began to look at health complaint logs kept at Hill, "and it was clear that a pattern was emerging," he said. "... teachers are dropping like flies with respiratory problems, and the school was having to call an ambulance to get oxygen into them."

Yet the physical mold infestation at Hill wasn't readily apparent. The bulk of the mold was found inside the walls, and had gotten there through roof leaks and poor drainage through the foundation. As a result, Torres said, tracking health complaints to look for possible patterns became an invaluable tool for detecting mold growth. "Absolutely. If you do the Tools for Schools EPA program, they are adamant about documenting complaints and reports about construction that has been completed as a result of complaints," he said.

Although he has consulted with district officials, Torres said he has not received any documentation outlining the district's progress toward implementing any of the EPA programs.


'Nothing Happened'

In the absence of hard-and-fast testing and tracking rules -- like those suggested by the EPA -- it isn't readily apparent just how closely AISD is monitoring potential mold problems. For example, is the district tracking health complaints for possible links to mold exposure?

According to Judy Frederick, the director for AISD's student health services, the answer is part yes and mostly no. "We do track health issues and we're looking to develop and fine-tune what we do," she said. However, she said, student health services is a "paper and pencil" operation, so it's difficult to track something nebulous like mold exposure. "For us to be a hard-and-fast tracking system, we're not that," she said. "We don't do that, we're not indoor air quality [specialists]." Frederick said her department "is always aware and sensitive of issues going on at the schools," and on more than one occasion has been brought in at the request of Deputy Superintendent Fuentes and/or a school principal to deal with the possibility of mold-related complaints.

While the health complaints on file at Hill helped track the ongoing mold issues there, at least one former teacher at Kealing Junior High said her ongoing complaints weren't tracked at all. "I resigned because of it," said 11-year veteran Kealing math teacher Nasrin Mombanini. She resigned from AISD on Jan. 1, 2001, after nearly two years of health problems that she believes stemmed from mold problems in her classroom. "I had told them I had a difficult time breathing and I asked if they would clean up the a/c system," she said. "Nothing happened." When Mombanini went to the doctor, she says, she found out she had a severe sinus infection that was draining into her brain -- a medical problem she had never had before. "It would get better in the summer," she said. "Any time I was off, I was a different person." But when at school, she said, her problems persisted and worsened, and she had to go to the hospital a second time. "I had severe bleeding in my sinuses," she said. "I had to be hospitalized again, and I had to have a blood transfusion."

Finally, on Oct. 28, 2000, AISD came out to test Mombanini's room. The test results showed viable Alternaria spores -- which, Torres said, thrive in conditions similar to those found in the human lungs -- in the classroom. The same spores were not found in the outside air sample, a situation which indoor air experts say should raise red flags.

Yet this is the same Kealing data that showed a larger number of viable spores than total spores in the overall air, a discrepancy that Torres and other indoor health experts said would make the overall data unreliable. And according to Mombanini, before collecting the indoor samples AISD officials opened the classroom's windows, another sure way to corrupt the testing. "They said they found a trace of three or four things, but they said that in some people it doesn't affect them." After Mombanini ended up in the hospital for a third time, she said, she decided she had no choice but leave the school. "I've had no sinus problems since," she said, "I haven't even had to see the doctor."


A Moving Target

Brad Shaver, assistant director of AISD's building maintenance, said he doesn't know the details of the Maplewood or Kealing testing, but that the district is trying to keep up with possible mold problems and is constantly revising and updating testing practices. For example, as a result of Van Deusen's ongoing concerns at Maplewood, he said, the district called in an independent consultant to do further testing, which resulted in some sheet-rock replacement over spring break. And, he said, further testing was not conducted by AISD after the suspect desk was removed from the fifth-grade classroom, because that job was being transferred to the consultant. While the results of those tests have not yet been released, Shaver said that, as he understands it, the consultant did not find any trace of Stachybotrys at Maplewood. Further, he said, he recently called the consultant in again, this time to look at conditions at Kealing, "conditions that we've suspected could cause mold growth."

Shaver said keeping up with mold issues is like trying to hit a moving target. "There are so many contributing factors," he said. Indeed, even indoor air quality experts like Torres are quick to admit that the science is still evolving. While a confirmed connection has been made between health problems and exposure to high concentrations of mold -- as with farmers who handle moldy hay -- Torres said similar conclusions have yet to be drawn for what he calls "low level, high stakes" exposure: "as in being in an office or a school and being exposed for long periods of time to lower levels of mold." Research in this area, he said, is ongoing.

The incomplete state of the research, Shaver says, makes analyzing mold problems within AISD especially difficult. Moreover, some people -- for example, those with respiratory ailments like asthma -- are more susceptible to the effects of mold, while others don't seem susceptible at all. That said, Shaver insists he is working with Torres and others to try and implement portions of the Tools for Schools program, which may make it easier to identify potential problems. The program "gives everyone [in the school building] an assignment ... that you should become aware of your area and report [problems, like water intrusion] in a timely fashion so you can prevent microbial growth," Shaver said. "The biggest thing we are trying to do is get the communication part of it out there." In addition, he said, the district is looking at setting up specific health logs that would be maintained in each school office so that teachers, kids, and parents could each report health complaints. "There are lots of things we've learned in the last year or so since [mold exposure issues have] become an elevated awareness in the community," he said. "That's why, if we get anybody with concerns, we treat them with as much diligence as we can. Because we never know what another set of eyes is going to see."


'We Won't Know'

Teresa Van Deusen is unconvinced by AISD reassurances that things are getting better. In February, she withdrew her daughter from Maplewood, deciding to home-school Nika instead. Despite the spring break sheet-rock removal, Van Deusen does not believe that the school is "clean." And since Maplewood is not currently considered a top priority on the bond list -- although it is scheduled to receive $383,600 for roof repairs, among other things -- she fears things will get worse there before they get better. "Speaking very generally, it will take between 18 and 24 months before we ever even see a contractor up there," she said. "I was hoping I could bring [Nika] back to school; she thrives in that environment. But after all the delays and delays and delays. ... It could be years the way they are dragging their feet now."

Shaver agrees that there may, indeed, be schools that, in the course of doing the construction work defined in the bond, will be identified as having more problems than the district first thought. "I'm sure there will be," he said. Conversely, he said, there may be jobs that aren't as big as the district estimated. "Until we really get the opportunity to do some physical destructive investigating, [we] won't know."

Vince Torres agrees that there may be more mold problems within the district then have currently been identified, and that digging into the bond package construction is the only way to find out. "I think we've done the right thing from the standpoint that we have lots of maintenance issues that we haven't been that diligent on, and it's time to start paying the piper on that," he said. But, is there enough money? "I can't sit here and tell you that, and no one on the committee or within AISD can tell you that, until we get in there and start doing the work." end story

  • More of the Story

  • Bond Package for Mold

    A list of AISD mold remediation projects funded by money from the bond package.

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