Mold Wars - Part 4

Roaches and Rodents
by Lee Thomassen

[On advice of Counsel, I am noting that the information below concerning the faculty refrigerator was not reported by the school system in its pest report to the Office of Civil Rights.]

During the winter of 2010/2011, an employee from the Dept of Facilities came to my school to evaluate our rodent problem.  His findings were communicated in an email from the office.  The teachers were told that the rodent problem in the school was caused by food in the classrooms.  Teachers were told that if they stopped eating in their classrooms, the mice would have nothing to eat and they would starve to death.  Then on May 9, 2011 at a faculty meeting, a member of the Faculty Council noted our continuing mouse problem.  She stated that teachers were still eating in their rooms so the mouse problem had not abated.  Both messages were loud and clear – the teachers were to blame for the mouse infestation in the school.

At the same time the teacher on the Faculty Council was politely castigating her fellow employees, a drama was playing itself out in the faculty dining room – the custodial staff was removing the faculty refrigerator from the building.  The photograph below shows the refrigerator with the door removed (both were sitting next to the school’s dumpster when I took this photograph).  Pay close attention to the little black marks.

Mouse Droppings in Refrigerator of School With Mold ProblemYou guessed it – rodent excrement!  [And the faculty dining room is where that pest-control technician wants our teaching staff to eat!  Yuck!  I’ll continue eating in my classroom, thank you very much!]

So how did mice manage to break into the faculty refrigerator and engorge themselves on all of the delectables that the faculty stores in there?  I examined the refrigerator carefully.  I could not find any holes in the interior or in the door’s rubber seal.  The joke was that the school, which prides itself on the quality of its instruction and the high caliber of its students, must also be producing exceptionally intelligent mice that have learned how to open refrigerator doors. 

Mice are amazing creatures.  They leave urine markers in buildings to help them navigate at night.  You can see these markings with a hand-held black light.  Mice are almost completely blind, but their highly sensitive whiskers allow them to navigate walls with incredible speed.  They can flatten themselves out to squeeze under closed doors.  They love all of the candy, gum and wrappers that students smuggle into classrooms each day.  They will also eat a textbook if student candy and chips are in short supply.  Their droppings not only help as a navigational tool, but they also aid the members of the Tools for Schools Teams doing their twice annual inspection surveys to identify rooms with rodent traffic.  As the droppings dry out, tiny fecal particulates become airborne.  In some areas of the country, rodent droppings and urine can lead to serious illnesses like Huntavirus. 

Around 2002, I was at a meeting of the Citizen Advisory Board for Indoor Environment Quality in Schools at County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder’s office.  Dr. Hamilton, the chief allergist at Johns Hopkins, told the assembled group that there is a chemical in mouse urine that is a potent trigger in causing asthma attacks.  He noted that this chemical was probably the number one cause of asthma in Baltimore City schools.

The following story concerns a student who was having horrible asthma attacks.  The student was using a nebulizer in the nurse’s office multiple times a week.  The school had just trained its first environmental team as part of the county-wide Tools for Schools program.  The school nurse mobilized the school’s Tools for Schools team and the child’s teachers.  She made suggestions on how they could cut down on the child’s sensitivity to allergens. Team members made other suggestions as well (even things as simple as cleaning accumulated dirt and dust on the rotor blades on fans can help asthmatics).  More importantly, they studied the patterns of when the student went to the infirmary to use the nebulizer.  It turned out that over half of the asthma incidents were occurring at the beginning of period 2.  The student sat in the second row next to the windows in the first period classroom.  Each day, the student would place a notebook on the top shelf next to a window instead of putting it in the desk – the same shelf that the mice traversed every night when the school was closed down.  There was nothing to see on that shelf, but as mouse urine left from the previous evening evaporated, it would leave a chemical residue.  The student was placing the notebook on that chemical residue, and when the notebook was picked up for the journey to period 2, the student’s hands would make contact with the chemicals and absorb them through the skin.  All elements of the Tools for Schools team leaped into action including the assistant principal, the school nurse, the custodial staff and the child’s teachers.  The areas where the student sat in each classroom were scrubbed and disinfected.  A particularly conscientious custodian in the maintenance department cleaned that student’s desks and nearby shelving in multiple classrooms on a weekly basis.  Over the next two weeks, the child had to use the nebulizer once more and then was nebulizer-free for the remainder of the school year.

It was one of the first achievements in the school system’s new Tools for Schools program.  The industrial hygienist in charge of Tools for Schools was notified and he spread the word about this environmental success to the upper echelon managers in the school system.  The school nurse received a glowing commendation from the head of the system’s Wellness Office.  The teacher representative on the Tools for Schools program, however, was formally reprimanded in an email by the school principal for proposing and facilitating indoor air environment accommodations for a student without her express permission.  No good deed goes unpunished….

I attached two cardboard strips to the bottom of my classroom doors several years ago.  It has been effective in keeping mice out of my room with the exception of the mouse that managed to incinerate itself in my unit ventilator (which I wrote about in chapter 20 of Surviving Mold).  When I cleaned out Christine Goldman’s art classroom after her forced retirement, there were mouse droppings everywhere.  There was also a mummified mouse corpse in her storeroom.  When the new art teacher came, he caught so many mice on sticky mouse traps that he started keeping a tally on a paper that he attached to the bulletin board behind his desk.  When the number approached 100 dead mice, the list mysteriously vanished. 

So how do mice figure in the topic of mold and bacteria in a water-damaged building?  Just as metabolites and cell walls from mold can be pathogens in human illness, waste by-products from mice cause bacteria that are pathogens in human illness.  Rodents with disease-carrying fleas have been identified as a cause of plague.  Dr. Colleen Pietrowski told me that in a Lyme endemic area like north-central Maryland, mice are the primary transmitter of young ticks infected with Lyme disease.  Mice and roaches can also aid in the spread of mold colonies by tracking through mold in dust and dirt during their nightly excursions in search of food.  Several websites have suggested that mice and roaches help spread mold with sticky spores like Stachybotrys chartarum. 

Cockroach in Moldy SchoolThe photo below shows an Oriental Waterbug, a cockroach that loves the damp decaying matter in water-damaged buildings.  It was taken in one of the school’s bathrooms.  This mature female measures just over an inch in length.  Her name is Agnes.  I told her that if she would line up horizontally along the floor tiles so that I could take an accurate measurement from head to abdomen, I wouldn’t step on her – she complied. 

The Department of Environment Services recommends in the Tools for Schools surveys that schools pour a gallon of water down unused floor drains every few months.  This helps to fill the traps to keep sewer gas from entering the indoor air environment.  More often than not, however, the dry floor drains provide a home for Agnes and her ever-growing family.  Agnes also likes to use the holes in the walls where the intake pipes are located. Buildings with waterbugs can inflict the human inhabitants with diarrhea, food poisoning and allergy attacks.  Dr. Hamilton told the Citizen Advisory Board that a chemical in roach urine is a major asthma trigger.  Before I was fired from the Tools for Schools team, I reported over half a dozen sightings of waterbugs.  Department of Facilities pest management personnel have sometimes sprayed areas of the school in response to such complaints, but the waterbugs always seem to come back.  It is a never ending struggle once they have infested a water-damaged building.


Mold Wars - Part 6

Intervention by the Office for Civil Rights
by Lee Thomassen
There were a series of communications between me and the Philadelphia Office of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the spring of 2010.  OCR takes discrimination complaints seriously, but they also closely scrutinize the information to make sure the alleged discrimination falls under their jurisdiction.  
OCR also had to make a determination whether or not the filing of the complaint occurred within the time period allowed by federal law.  According to federal regulations, I had to file within six months from the time that the discrimination occurred.  Using November 6, 2009 as day one (when I received written notification that most of my accommodation requirements had been rejected), May 6, 2010 would have been the six-month limit to the legal filing period. 

OCR also wanted to know if I had ever faced retaliation.  The answer, of course, was yes – I had been reprimanded on four levels: verbally, in emails, in an end of year evaluation and in a formal letter of reprimand.  Being reprimanded, belittled, scorned and subjected to a malicious whispering campaign had always struck me as par for the course when you dare to say that there is an indoor environment quality problem in your building.  Did any of that occur after the rejection of the majority of the accommodations in early November?  I thought back.  I had received a letter of reprimand and been fired from the Tools for School Team on November 30, 2009 – the rejection of the accommodations had been penned by the EEO Office in early November 2009.  I had not linked the events before, but OCR appeared to think that there was a possibility that the two events were connected. 

I filed all of the required paperwork just prior to the end of April.  Included in my complaint was a statement that my employer had disciplined me by writing a letter of reprimand and by firing me from the Tools for Schools Team.  I mailed a sizeable package of materials to the Philadelphia Office of OCR.  All that was left to do after that was wait and pray.  I did not have to wait long.

On May 5, 2010, the Office for Civil Rights penned the following letter in response to my formal complaint:

Dear Mr. Thomassen,

This is in further reference to the complaint you filed with the U.S. Department of Education (Department), Office for Civil Rights (OCR), against [XXXX] County Public Schools (the District).  This also confirms your April 28, 2010 conversation with Cynthia Wesley, of our staff, and your October 30, 2009 correspondence to the US Department of Justice which was forwarded to OCR.  You allege that the District discriminated against you on the basis of disability and retaliated against you because you pursued your rights as a person with a disability.  Specifically, you allege the District discriminated against you on the basis of disability by:

1.    failing to approve your job-related reasonable accommodation requests in November 2009;
2.    failing to provide the following reasonable accommodations after November 2009;
a.    change filters in an air ventilation unit every three months;
b.    provide you with a restroom key;
c.    keep restroom in good working order;
d.    ensure Room 116 is not damaged by water intrusion. Rodents or construction damage; and
e.    clean custodial room.

You also allege that the District retaliated against you in November 2009 when the Principal of [XXXX] Middle School:

3.    wrote you a letter of reprimand; and
4.    removed you as the “Tools for Schools” teacher representative.

OCR is responsible for enforcing:
➢    Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 104.  Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of Federal financial assistance.
➢    Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 and its implementing regulation, 28 C.F.R. Part 35.  Title II prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities. 

Retaliation is prohibited under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is incorporated by reference in the Section 504 regulation at 34 C.F.R. Section 104.61, and the ADFA regulation at 28 C.F.R. Section 35.134.  As a recipient of Federal financial assistance from the Department and a public entity, the District is subject to Section 504 and Title II, Additional information about the laws OCR enforces is available on our website at
Because OCR has determined that it has jurisdiction and that the complaint was filed timely, it is opening the allegations above for investigation [emphasis mine].Mold On School Wall

YES!!!  I was euphoric!  After years of illness and watching my health and the health of friends like Christine Goldman deteriorate, a ray of sunshine had finally come after the storm.  I knew that I still had hurdles to overcome, but I at least had a sporting chance of presenting my case in a forum outside the school system. 

The letter had other important points.  The launch of an investigation did not mean that OCR had made a decision as to the merits of the complaint.  The letter continues, “During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the complainant, the recipient, and other sources, as appropriate.”  This was sweet music to my ears.  My school system had rejected SAIIE, medical, environmental and ERMI evidence.  How would the government interpret the same evidence stacked side-by-side with the school system’s evidence?  How would the government respond to the one type of evidence that my school system did not know about?  After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
And boy did I have a lot of pictures!



Mold in Schools


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Mold Wars - Part 1

by Lee Thomassen

David vs. Goliath

The eight-foot tall Godzilla-like black fungus that had been growing on the wall of the custodial room ten feet from my classroom was gone!  Hallelujah!!!  As of May 2010, there would be no more contamination from this alpha colony of Aspergillus fumigatus in my school! 

In late August of 2010, I began my 22nd school year as a middle school teacher.  I had high hopes that after years of bacterial and fungal torture, I would have a chance to go into recovery mode for the first time in over a decade.  We had a new principal in the building and no one had reprimanded me in ten months!  Things were looking up!

There is, however, no reprieve from the bacterial and fungal hazards in a water-damaged building.  One of the most toxigenic molds known to medical science was expanding its area of influence in my school.  It loved the cellulose in water-damaged ceiling panels and the paper in books, both of which abound in schools.  It is one of the most toxigenic molds known to medical science and the bane of many water-damaged buildings – Chaetomium globosum.   

Hi – my name is Lee Thomassen.  If you read Dr. Shoemaker’s book Surviving Mold, you might recognize me as the author of chapter 20 (“Teaching in a Water-Damaged School – Fighting for Our Lives”).  It is now September of 2011.  Being out of the building for seven weeks over the summer did wonders for my “brain fog.”  My first experience with VIP (Vasoactive Intestinal Polypeptide) replacement therapy brought all but one of my abnormal blood counts down to normal.  I have used this window of opportunity to write with a clear memory a historical account of what I experienced during the 2010-2011 school year. 

I wrote chapter 20 in June of 2010 and the roller-coaster ride since then has not abated.  All across this country, there are employees, students, renters and home owners who have suffered the ravages of Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome. It is a shared experience that we hold in common.  What makes this story unique is that I witnessed something truly remarkable – in the fall of 2010, my employer had to sign a Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, US Department of Education, for violating my rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for discriminating against me after I filed for accommodations relating to my inflammatory response illness.  Then in the spring of 2011, a 2nd major Maryland public school system was impacted by Section 504 – it granted disability retirement to a teacher after coming to the conclusion that it could not meet the accommodation requirements contained in her application for accommodations in the water-damaged building where she worked.  

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act can be a powerful tool in the battle against employers who refuse to deal with illnesses related to the indoor air environment.  Teachers are the largest group of employees in the nation that are exposed to harmful toxins, bacteria and microbes in water-damaged buildings.  Children have benefited from these proceedings for decades – now it is time for employees to use Section 504 for their own benefit.  According to federal law, any person who works for an organization that receives federal financial assistance can apply for 504 accommodations (just like students can), and that probably applies to every employee involved in public education.  Other groups that would be covered include the military, the FAA, WIC, Social Security workers and Postal employees.  The list of organizations in the United States that are recipients of federal financial assistance, both inside and outside the federal government, is huge. 

In the fall of 2010, my employer suddenly awakened to the threat of what it could mean to be the first school system in the country to have the federal government force them to grant accommodations for disabilities caused by toxigenic mold exposure (and all of the harmful metabolites, cell fragments, actinomycetes and mycobacteria that go hand-in-hand with exposures in water-damaged buildings).  They mobilized their enormous resources as the 26th largest school system in the nation.  This included their attorneys in the school system’s “Law Cottage” (yes – my school system has a building just for its lawyers – our property tax dollars well spent).  They brought together their highly paid engineers and industrial hygienists at the Department of Facilities and the Department of Environmental Services.  Our Environmental Services personnel are careful to leave no paper trail with regards to my school (despite the documentation requirements of MOSH, Maryland’s subsidiary of OSHA) and they do no sampling that could produce a lab report that might contradict their position that the building I work in does not have water-intrusion and indoor air quality issues.

The 2010-2011 school year was a David vs. Goliath struggle.  I did not have a building full of lawyers, two industrial hygienists and a bunch of building engineers to help me.  But I did have weapons that proved to be very powerful.

It is my hope that my on-going historical account of what happened during the 2010-2011 school year may prove useful to those who have to fight the same battles in their schools and water-damaged buildings.  In this series of blogs, I will narrate the events that pick-up where Chapter 20 in Surviving Mold left off. 

Mold Wars - Part 7

I Get the Wording Right
by Lee Thomassen

When I wrote the required accommodations to send to the EEO Office, I was entering territory that I had never explored before.  In March and April, 2010, I wrote an addendum that dealt with objections that the EEO Office had expressed when they rejected the majority of the accommodations in November of 2009.  Some of the wording was based on the language of 504 accommodations and IEP accommodations granted to students.

ADDENDUM A – April 13, 2010

Accommodation 1.A – There should be unit ventilation and filtration in room 116 at [XXXX] Middle School (including weekends) maintaining a constant air flow of at least 15 cubic liters of air per second.  The unit ventilator should run until 8:00 in the evening since Mr. Thomassen often works past 6:00 due to his two spinal injuries and associated physical disabilities.  MOSH has written to BCPS with a recommendation that unit ventilation be increased in room 116.  Over a dozen teachers on the second floor of the school, without a documented medical need, currently receive the benefits of extended air filtration beyond the 6:00 cut-off. 

Accommodation 1.B – It is required that two HEPA 0.3 micron filters be placed in room 116.  Said HEPA 0.3m filters should have sufficient air filtration capacity for a room with an approximate area of 835 square feet.  Said HEPA 0.3m filters can be mobile or fixed.  The HEPA 0.3m filters are a medical requirement and a reasonable accommodation for a patient who has abnormal MSH, VIP, C4a and MMP-9 biomarkers, increasing Leptin resistance, low VEGF, and a health impairment that substantially limits the major life activities of respiratory function, immune function and vascular function. This reasonable accommodation will allow Mr. Thomassen to function in the least restrictive environment.

Accommodation 6 – It is required that one or two window air conditioners be installed in room 116 with adequate BTU for the size of the room.  The air conditioners are a medical requirement and a reasonable accommodation for a patient who has a health impairment that substantially limits the major life activities of respiratory function, immune function and vascular function.  The patient has suffered damage to the hypothalamus that negatively impacts the ability of the brain to regulate body temperature creating a series of vascular and respiratory issues requiring the regulation of the temperature environment during periods of elevated heat and humidity.  In addition, the patient has suffered a considerable reduction of VEGF resulting in reduced oxygen delivery into capillary beds.  He is also experiencing dehydration as measured by abnormally high Osmolality readings.  The air conditioners will help the patient to avoid increased dehydration at levels that could be dangerous to his health given his vascular and respiratory issues. This reasonable accommodation will allow Mr. Thomassen to function in the least restrictive environment during elevated periods of heat and humidity.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    As I look back on the wording, I recognize now that I was becoming proficient in a new language – one that OCR would be using but my school system (“the District”) would not.  The most important concept was the following phrase: “a reasonable accommodation for a patient who has a health impairment that substantially limits the major life activities of respiratory function, immune function and vascular function.”  The writing of Addendum A coincided with several requests to me from other teachers on how to write a plan for 504 accommodations.  As I mentioned in Part I of Mold Wars, one of those teachers successfully used the wording in my 504 documents in her application for accommodations and ended up with disability retirement! 

“The District” received Addendum A, marked that the document had been received, put it in my EEO folder and probably never read it.  Although that oversight by “The District” was certainly negative for me in the short term, I was able to use that lapse in professionalism to my advantage.  Later that year, I would complain accurately to the Office of Civil Rights that “The District” had failed for six months to respond to an entire page of my 504 application.  OCR agreed.  It was a major strategic blunder on the part of the school system.  More would follow

Mold Wars - Part 5

An Endless Supply of Dirty Tricks
by Lee Thomassen

My medical history shows that my blood labs improve over summer vacation.  My brain fog would never completely go away after seven weeks out of my water-damaged building, but there was always a noticeable improvement.  In March of 2010, I was looking forward to being able to do all of the research required to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights during that extended summer vacation away from my water-damaged building.  What I did not realize was that there was a six-month deadline approaching in early May to file with OCR.  Knowing my own work habits, I would have spent my first week of summer vacation (June 19 – 25) doing the research and gathering up documents, and after a few days of typing and proofreading, I would have mailed my complaint with supporting documentation around June 30.  Although I did not know it at the time, it would have been too late and my application would have been rejected on a mere timing technicality.  However, my school system would do something so heinous and despicable that it would inspire me to finalize the complaint in March instead of June.  This is that story.

My decision to file discrimination charges against my employer did not come lightly.  It was very frustrating that no one within the school system was willing to discuss my growing list of environmental concerns.     The ultimate corporate body that has the power to affect change in my school system is the Office of Risk Management.  I contacted them in October of 2009 and expressed my concerns.  I even allowed Risk Management and their medical personnel to examine the SAIIE findings (Surviving Mold pages 524 – 528).  They never responded to my letter that year.  In January of 2010, I received a letter from the EEO Office identifying who in the school system were consultants in my case with access to my information.  One of them was an influential member of the Risk Management Office.  I contacted him in January 2010 and noted that BCPS had refused to give me a 504 hearing and that it was a serious mistake to deny someone their rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  It had been my hope that Risk Management would recognize that it was against the law to deny accommodations without due process.  What I got instead was a lesson in just how corrupt the upper echelons of my school system had become.  Instead of facilitating a 504 meeting, the Risk Management officer sent my 504 application to their medical contact at Concentra without my written consent. 

For those of you out there who have employers who ask you to sign a consent form so that their medical professionals at their insurance company look at your medical evidence, do not do it.  It is a scam.  I illustrated how the scam worked in chapter 20 of Surviving Mold using primary source documentation provided by art teacher Christine Goldman when she was asked by our mutual employer to consult with their medical insurance expert (pages 510 – 515). In Maryland, there is a law that allows you to say, “your insurance doctor is not an expert in chronic inflammatory response illnesses; therefore, I am requesting that a specialist examine my information – here is a list of doctors with expertise in this field.  Pick one!”  Make no mistake about it, even if you have information from a Nobel laureate, your employer’s insurance company doctor will make up a reason to discredit it.  Don’t give them that chance.  Your treating physician will gladly provide a list of qualified specialists who are experts in their field. 

What is interesting about how Risk Management handled my case is that they did not even attempt to play fair.  You would assume that it would be a mere formality for Risk Management to send a file of medical information provided by the employee’s physicians knowing in advance that the insurance physician would discredit it.  In my case, Risk Management did not send any of the medical information in the EEO file that went with my 504 application.  More pointedly, Risk Management had direct control over my disability file relating to two serious spinal injuries suffered while working in the school system in the 1990s.  A worker’s compensation settlement dated January 2001 had awarded me 10% permanent partial disability with right of revisitation in the future because of the seriousness of the condition (and the likelihood that it would deteriorate while I was still employed).  Risk Management did not include that key piece of information in the mailing to the Concentra physician, nor did they send the medical data provided by Dr. Shoemaker on the medical data form specifically requested by the EEO Office to process my case.  In addition, the list of accommodations contained confidential medical information, and Risk Management never even bothered to have me sign a release of medical information form (HIPAA regulations be damned).  So the Concentra physician examined my 12 required accommodations without even knowing that a file of medical information was in the hands of school system personnel and that I had gone through workers compensation and had documented disabilities accepted by the school system.  Talk about stacking the deck!   
My 504 application for accommodations was sent to the same Concentra medical advisor who had received art teacher Christine Goldman’s medical file a few years earlier.  On March 19, 2010 (five months after I had first contacted Risk Management), I received Concentra’s report.  In one sentence, the Concentra physician rejected the SAIIE data.  “…This information is debatable at best and is not based on well accepted scientific knowledge at this time” (never mind that the courts in Maryland accept SAIIE data as legal evidence).  The physician admitted that he did not have the usual information that he would need to complete a report.  “Because Mr. Thomassen was not seen for an evaluation, I cannot comment in detail about his medical complaints or what his physical exam reveals, or if he has any other contributing medical history that may contribute to his reported symptoms.” 

The Concentra physician referred to the concept of “information submitted” in several sentences as the basis for his report.  That is the key to the discrimination enacted by the Risk Management Office.  By withholding important relevant information from their insurance physician, the Risk Manager in question was making it easy for the Concentra physician to reject the list of twelve accommodations.  “I have not been submitted any convincing information that suggests that Mr. Thomassen has a health impairment that substantially limits his major life activities which will qualify him for accommodations” [emphasis mine].  If ever there was an example of a lack of medical ethics in the insurance medical review process, this was it.  The Concentra physician wrote that my school system should not grant me any of the accommodations that were required in my 504 application – not one! Not even the simple accommodation for a key to the frequently locked bathroom ten feet from my classroom. 

Although I was furious at the unscrupulous morals and lack of professional ethics by Concentra and the Office of Risk Management, in hindsight, receiving the report from Concentra could not have been timed better.  The failure of Risk Management to respond to the health threat affecting my school, my students and myself was the last straw.  My attempts to reason with my employer were over – I was ready to cross the Rubicon.  With a clear conscience, I contacted the Philadelphia Office of OCR and filed a formal complaint that I had been discriminated against by my employer on the basis of disability, and because I contacted OCR in March instead of June of 2010, the 26th largest school system in the country ended up in the crosshairs of the Office for Civil Rights, US Department of Education.   

Mold Wars - Part 3

The Fungal Opponents
by Lee Thomassen
[On advice of Counsel, I am noting that my school system provided a short report concerning mold to the Office of Civil Rights in 2011.  Said report was obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request in October of 2011.  ERMI and microscopy data provided by me to the school system was not included in the school system’s report to OCR.  While the school system was minimizing indoor air quality issues, I was sending detailed photographs and ERMI data to OCR with expansive commentary.]

My building has the distinction of being an on-going laboratory for the study of how certain fungi behave in indoor environments with individual unit ventilators.  I have tried to get speciation data from three main sources of fungal contamination in the building: visible mold in books, visible mold on ceiling panels and spores in floor dust in water-damaged rooms.  I have concentrated the microscopy studies and ERMIs on the rooms that impact me the most.  On the first floor, that would include the custodial room, the Dark Room, an art room, a science room and my own classroom.  On the second floor, there is the Library, the 2nd floor hallway and a foreign language room.   
The mold species present in this building must be very happy.  They have a continuing supply of water, dust and dirt to nourish them.  The humidity is above 60% several days a week in the spring and fall, and most of the time during the summer.  The filters on the unit ventilators are no threat because they cannot catch and remove spores from the indoor air environment.  Fungicides are not used in the building, so fungal-eating bacteria are the only natural predators facing the spores (unless you include me).

The following is a summary of the major fungal players at the middle school where I teach.  I will specify whether the species of mold appears on the EPA Group One or Group Two lists, Dr. Jack D. Thrasher’s list of signal molds (“species of concern”) [Research Committee Report on Diagnosis and Treatment of Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome Caused by the Exposure to the Interior Environment of Water-Damaged Buildings, Ritchie C. Shoemaker MD, Laura Mark MD, Scott McMahon MD, Jack D. Thrasher PhD, Carl Grimes HHS, CIEC, July 27, 2010, page 19], and the list of nine target organisms that Dr. Ritchie C. Shoemaker relies on in assessment of WDB links to human illnesses.

  • Aspergillus niger [EPA Group One, Thrasher, Shoemaker] – Niger has shown up in significant amounts in several water-damaged library books, in floor dust in the 2nd floor library and the adjoining workroom.  Niger has also shown up in floor dust in the custodial room ten feet from my classroom in two different ERMIs.  The library book The Arabian Nights had 22,882 spores/mg.
  • Aspergillus fumigatus [EPA Group One, Thrasher, Shoemaker] – Fumigatus was the major toxigenic mold found in the custodial room ten feet from my classroom.  Art teacher Christine Goldman’s hall duty in the year that she got sick was in front of this room.  Even though the school system’s industrial hygienists were BCPS consultants on my 504 (and accommodation # 11 required the industrial hygienists to remediate the mold in the custodial room), they refused to come out to the school to inspect the room in 2009 or the first five months of 2010.  By May of 2010, the visible mold bloom was eight feet tall and four feet wide.  The undercover remediation of this room by two facilities personnel resulted in the injury of a student in May of 2010 [see chapter 20 of Surviving Mold].  In November of 2010, six months after the room had been scrubbed and repainted, the two industrial hygienists visited the room (apparently for the first time) and wrote that they could not remediate the mold in the custodial room because none was there!  
  • Aspergillus penicillioides [EPA Group One, Thrasher, Shoemaker] – Penicillioides has been found in my classroom, the custodial room, an art room  and one water-damaged library book.  The amount in my classroom was small and probably gained access to my room on the flat mops used by the custodial staff or through normal air circulation.  Until I complained in my application for 504 accommodations, the normal custodial procedure was to mop up all of the dust with a long flat dry dust mop and then shake out all of the collected dust in the classroom doorway before going into the next room to “clean.”  This cleaning procedure was in fact putting tiny bacterial and fungal particulates back into the indoor air environment on a daily basis.  After I filed for accommodations, the custodial staff was equipped with smaller mops with washable microfiber cloths (although they didn’t always use them).  In the fall of 2011, the custodial department stopped using the microfiber cloths altogether and returned to the old flat dust mops.
  • Aspergillus sydowii [EPA Group One] – Sydowii has shown up in water-damaged library books and in floor dust in several rooms on both floors of the school.  It has not established itself on any of the water-damaged ceiling panels. 
  • Eurotium amstelodami [EPA Group One, Thrasher] – Eurotium has not shown up in any of the tested books, but it has shown up in floor dust in each room tested on both floors of the school.  More ominously, it was one of several molds that managed to travel beyond the radius of the water-damage in the library and establish itself in a visible mold colony on a water damaged ceiling panel in a foreign language classroom during the summer of 2010.
  • Aureobasidium pullulans [EPA Group One] – Pullulans has been found in floor dust in every room tested.  It does not appear to have much appetite for water-damaged books in the school.  It was the leading Group One mold in my classroom.  A visible colony of Aureobasidium developed on a ceiling panel in a science classroom around the corner from my classroom over the summer of 2011.   
  • Cladosporium sphaerospermum [EPA Group One] – This species of fungus was present in floor dust in my classroom, Christine Goldman’s art room, the custodial room and in the library.  There was a minor colony found in The Arabian Nights (550 spores/mg).  In September of 2011, a visible colony was found on a ceiling panel in a science classroom.  The number of spores/swb present was 84,755.  In October of 2011, small amounts were found on a ceiling panel in a storeroom in the school’s cafeteria kitchen.
  • Penicillium purpurogenum [EPA Group One] – For several years, purpurogenum only showed up in miniscule amounts in floor dust.  Then unexpectedly in 2010, it established itself in a water-damaged textbook originating in a foreign language classroom and the next year in a water-damaged ceiling panel in the same room.  In fact, it made-up one third of the Group One molds found in that textbook.  This is a good illustration of how an opportunistic fungus can take advantage of the humid indoor air environment in a water-damaged building and proliferate when provided with a suitable food source. 
  • Penicillium crustosum [EPA Group One] – Crustosum had 1,139,745 spores/mg in The Arabian Night making it the largest Group One colony in this library book.  Its influence has not spread beyond the library. 
  • Penicillium brevicompactum [EPA Group One, Thrasher] – Brevicompactum established a significant colony in the book The Arabian Nights (4,878 spores/mg), but it too has failed to spread beyond the confines of the library.
  • Penicillium glabrum [EPA Group One] - There were 390 spores/mg of dust in the first floor custodial room.  It’s influence has not spread beyond that room. 
  • Paecilomyces variotti [EPA Group One] – Paecilomyces loves paper.  It established huge colonies in several water-damaged library books.  There were 475,651 spores/mg in The Arabian Nights.   This is another one of those molds whose influence has not been felt outside of the contaminated library.  Small amounts have been found in floor dust.
  • Chaetomium globosum [EPA Group One, Thrasher, Shoemaker] – Chaetomium is probably the most dangerous mold currently infesting the indoor air environment of the school.  There were 10,331 spores/mg in The Arabian Nights.  It was also present in significant amounts in two other library books.  Since then, Chaetomium has found some fertile areas on the second floor and seems to be thriving.  It made its expanding presence known by establishing itself on a water-damaged ceiling panel outside of the library.  I went into the 2010-2011 school year thinking that I needed to keep off the second floor as much as possible to avoid inhaling spores from this dangerous mold.  Then to my surprise, in December of 2010, it turned up in a visible mold colony in a Spanish textbook used by a 7th grade boy in my classroom!!!  I taught five periods of 8th grade American history in my classroom in the fall of 2010 and a Spanish teacher “floated” into my room one period each day.  All of my efforts to avoid exposure to Chaetomium were undone by a 12-year old who managed to get his textbook wet in early November of 2010.  [When I saw Dr. Shoemaker in June of 2011, I showed him the blood lab for C4a that Dr. Colleen Pietrowski had ordered the previous winter.  It was over 23,900 (ten-times above normal).  When Dr. Shoemaker expressed his concern, I replied that despite all of my precautions, I had managed to expose myself to some serious fungi during the school year including Chaetomium.] 
  • Alternaria alternata [EPA Group Two] – Alternaria does not seem to like paper in the school, but it does like the cellulose in ceiling panels.  It is found in floor dust on both floors of the school.  Alternaria was one of the molds that managed to establish a visible colony on the ceiling panel in the hallway outside the library, on the ceiling panel in the Spanish classroom and in the main lobby of the school.  In October of 2011, speciation of a sample found on a ceiling panel in a storeroom next to the cafeteria kitchen revealed 5,019 spores/mg. 
  • Cladosporium cladosporioides (types one and two) [EPA Group Two, Thrasher] – It does not seem to like books in the school, but it is in floor dust in multiple rooms.  Both types showed up in a visible colony on a ceiling panel in a science classroom in September 2011.  Cladosporioides Type One is the second most-prevalent Group Two species found in floor dust in my classroom.  The presence of this mold demonstrates the failure of the filters used in the unit ventilation system to trap outdoor molds that are being sucked into the building by the air intake system. 
  • Cladosporium herbarum [EPA Group Two, Thrasher] - It has not established itself in books or ceiling panels, but it is in floor dust in multiple classrooms including my own.  It was the most prevalent Group Two mold in the contaminated custodial room.
  • Epicoccum nigrum [EPA Group Two, Thrasher] – Epicoccum was the most-prevalent species of Group Two mold in dust in my classroom, the library and an art room.  It has not yet established any visible colonies in books or ceiling panels in the school.
  • Mucor amphibiorum [EPA Group Two] – This species of mold was found in library books with minor amounts in floor dust from the library.  Its influence has not spread beyond the library.
  • Penicillium chrysogenum [EPA Group Two, Thrasher] – Chrysogenum likes books (1,712,919 spores/mg in The Arabian Nights) and the cellulose in multiple ceiling panels. 
  • Aspergillus ustus [EPA Group Two] - This mold is a major player in the school.  It has been found in multiple books (including 12,850,920 spores/mg in The Arabian Nights) and on multiple ceiling panels.  In October 2010, it was the predominant mold in the visible mold colony in room 212 (an astounding 64,087,560 spores/ml liquid).  In September of 2011, it was found on a visible colony on a ceiling panel in a first floor science room (85,764 spores/swb).  In October of 2011, it was found on a visible colony on a ceiling panel in a storage room next to the cafeteria kitchen (860,439 spores/mg).  Like Alternaria alternata, it appears to be an extremely opportunistic outdoor fungus that has latched onto water-damaged books and ceiling panels in the school and then reproduced at an astounding rate.  As a moisture-loving, paper and cellulose-munching fungi, Aspergillus ustus has found an ideal home in the hot humid indoor air environment of my building. 

I drew several important conclusions from the Group One data that affected my 2010 application for accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The most important one was that that my room was probably one of the least impacted rooms in the T-wing of the building (where the majority of the classrooms are located).  Dr. Shoemaker noted that I had to keep my room as safe as possible and that would involve obtaining a HEPA 0.3 air purification system.  Of course, teachers cannot hide out in their classrooms forever.  You have to walk through the lobby with the water-damaged ceiling panels to get to the office.  You have to walk down the contaminated second floor hallway to get to the grade-level team meetings.  I also realized that vacations would only be short-term reprieves to the chaos going on in my innate immune system.  Re-exposure was going to be my constant companion – after Christmas vacation, after Easter vacation, after summer vacation – year-after-year-after-year.      
The ERMI mechanism invented and patented by the EPA has given ordinary teachers and workers a major tool in assessing the overall indoor health of the building where they work.  One of the industrial hygienists in our school system once said that the ERMI numbers were normed by the EPA for a house and not a school; therefore, the data that I was collecting in the school building was basically useless.  He was referring to both the ERMI scores and the speciation data identified through the PCR process.  I would agree that an ERMI score in a building with over 100 rooms, closets and storage areas is not a universal value on the mold burden of the entire school; however, it is pseudo-science to ignore the speciation data (and accumulating medical data from the building’s occupants).  Art teacher Christine Goldman had an abnormal haplotype and worked in a classroom with Aspergillus penicillioides, Eurotium amstelodami and Aspergillus niger present in dust samples, and she did hall duty each day in front of a custodial room with Aspergillus fumigatus – no wonder she got sick!  Corporate pseudo-science attacks on two levels: have the insurance doctor deny the validity of the medical data while the industrial hygienists and building engineers deny the validity of the environmental evidence – all to the detriment of the employees (and children) exposed to the poor indoor air quality conditions.   

The interpretation of the Group 2 mold data in my building has been an enigma for me.  When developing the ERMI Index, the EPA was trying to objectively describe the mold burden in a home.  26 species associated with homes with water damage were chosen for the Group One list.  Ten species that were found in homes independent of water damage were chosen for the Group Two list.  I do not think that the EPA considered the possible toxicity of the Group 2 molds when it made its list.  Scientific data on possible toxin-formers on the Group 2 list is still in its infancy.  Further, how safe is a school with extraordinarily high Group 2 spore counts for an eleven or twelve-year old student with an underdeveloped immune system and severe allergies/asthma.  How many times must a student be transported to the hospital by ambulance before someone links the high Group 2 counts with repeated incidents of asthma?  Aspergillus ustus is not regarded as particularly toxigenic in the current literature, but at 64,087,560 spores/ml liquid, even minor toxins and metabolites from this mold could cause havoc on the respiratory system of an asthmatic or allergic student.   As for Cladosporium cladosporioides (types 1 and 2), Cladosporium herbarum, Epicocum nigrum and Penicillium chysogenum, all of which are present in my school, what impact are they having on the students?  Are they toxin-formers?  Are they a serious factor in causing respiratory ailments in the building?  Students – keep those inhalers handy! 

A few other molds of note have appeared in small quantities including Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus versicolor and Stachybotrys chartarum [EPA Group One, Thrasher, Shoemaker].  At some point, they may become a serious health risk given the current state of the humid indoor air environment of the building, so they are also molds of concern to watch out for in future ERMI’s.  My nightmare scenario would be a return of toxigenic species of mold to the custodial room near my classroom.  Aspergillus fumigatus may be gone from that room, but other opportunistic molds lie in wait.  This dark humid room has wet floors, damp unpainted wood at floor level and no mechanical or natural air ventilation (not even a window).  It is an invitation for an opportunistic mold to settle and proliferate.

Stachybotrys, with its sticky spores, may have helpers in schools like mine – helpers with the potential to walk through colonies in floor dirt and then transfer spores to other areas of the school at night.  This will allow me to transition into my next segment in Mold Wars – the double R’s – roaches and rodents.

Mold Wars - Part 8

Investigation vs. Mediation
by Lee Thomassen

The Office for Civil Rights has two options for individuals with cases that have been accepted for review.  The first is “Voluntary Resolution” which involves an investigation of the complaint by the regional Office for Civil Rights.  The second option is called “Early Conflict Resolution” (ECR).  This option involves trained OCR staff acting as neutral go-betweens to mediate a complaint.  I will explain both in detail.

Voluntary resolution requires a full investigation by the investigating team including interviews with all of the principal parties involved.  If the investigation finds evidence that discrimination has occurred, it can negotiate a resolution agreement with the offending party, which they would then be required to sign and implement.  A multi-month monitoring period would ensue to make sure that the offending party was carrying out its obligations contained in the voluntary resolution agreement.  The OCR website describes the voluntary resolution process:


If OCR determines that a recipient failed to comply with one of the civil rights laws that OCR enforces, OCR will contact the recipient and will attempt to secure the recipient’s willingness to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement.  If the recipient agrees to resolve the complaint, the recipient will negotiate and sign a written resolution agreement that describes the specific remedial actions that the recipient will undertake to address the area(s) of noncompliance identified by OCR. The terms of the resolution agreement, if fully performed, will remedy the identified violation(s) in compliance with applicable civil rights laws. OCR will monitor the recipient’s implementation of the terms of the resolution agreement to verify that the remedial actions agreed to by the recipient have been implemented consistent with the terms of the agreement and that the area(s) of noncompliance identified were resolved consistent with applicable civil rights laws. (, offices, Office for Civil Rights)

A voluntary resolution agreement was the best possible way to address my complaint – at least from my own point of view.  No school system wants to be informed by the Department of Education that it has been found to be in non-compliance with federal discrimination statutes under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  No school administration wants to face the wrath of the school board and the upper level managers that run the school system because they violated federal statutes. 

The offending party can refuse to negotiate a Voluntary Resolution Agreement, but this can lead to terrible consequences.

If the recipient refuses to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement or does not immediately indicate its willingness to negotiate, OCR will inform the recipient that it has 30 days to indicate its willingness to engage in negotiations to voluntarily resolve identified areas of noncompliance, or OCR will issue a Letter of Finding to the parties providing a factual and legal basis for a finding of non-compliance.

If, after the issuance of the Letter of Finding of non-compliance, the recipient continues to refuse to negotiate a resolution agreement with OCR, OCR will issue a Letter of Impending Enforcement Action and will again attempt to obtain voluntary compliance.   If the recipient remains unwilling to negotiate an agreement, OCR will either initiate administrative enforcement proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue Federal financial assistance to the recipient, or will refer the case to the Department of Justice.  OCR may also move immediately to defer any new or additional Federal financial assistance to the institution.

Imagine the reaction from the local school board that all federal funding has been cut off including money for the free and reduced lunch program.  As humiliating as a Voluntary Resolution Agreement is, it is still preferable to losing the federal funding that your school system counts on to meet its budget and serve the children in the local community. 
The second option offered by the Office for Civil Rights is Early Complaint Resolution (ECR).  This option allows both parties to mediate a solution to the complaint without having to face an investigation by a government agency.  Mediation can bring about a mutually agreed upon solution in a minimum amount of time. 

Early Complaint Resolution allows the parties (the complainant and the institution which is the subject of the complaint) an opportunity to resolve the complaint allegations quickly; generally, soon after the complaint has been opened for investigation. If both parties are willing to try this approach, and if OCR determines that Early Complaint Resolution is appropriate, OCR will facilitate settlement discussions between the parties and work with the parties to help them understand the legal standards and possible remedies.

The major disadvantage of mediation is that OCR does not monitor compliance if both sides reach an agreement; if the party that was originally accused of discrimination by the complainant violates the agreement, the complainant can file a new complaint within 180 days. 

When the Office for Civil Rights contacted me and offered me the choice of ECR or voluntary resolution, I turned down ECR immediately.  As one of my advisors pointed out, my school system has a major problem with ethics and honesty, and mediation only works when both parties are sincere in their desire to work through the problems.  It was June of 2010.  I was in the process of notifying my union about the inappropriate use of industrial-grade paint in my building during school hours and without proper ventilation.  I had to suffer through a serious bout with bronchitis because of the careless actions of my school system’s facilities office. Compromise was not my priority given those circumstances.

I received several contacts from an OCR mediator asking me to reconsider. I do not remember exactly when it happened, but it struck me during one of those conversations that the individuals at OCR had undergone a lot of training.  I had been in contact with three different people at OCR.  They were good listeners.  They understood the concept of validation.  These were not people who got a job at OCR through blind luck – their temperament and training had made employment at OCR appealing to them.  They truly believed in what they were doing and what the mission of OCR was.  I knew that I was taking a big risk if I picked mediation over voluntary resolution.  A mediated agreement was clearly the easy way out for my school system and one that they would never honor.  On the other hand, I knew that the upper managers in my school system did not have a clear conscience or know how to compromise in any meaningful sense.  They had in their possession a letter from a Concentra doctor saying that I should not be given even one accommodation.  That letter was going to warp their perspective; they thought that they were in the right and I was in the wrong – period.  I call it the “Greenwood Principle” (named after the luxurious mansion and grounds where the upper managers of the school system have their spacious environmentally-regulated offices).  The higher a person is promoted into positions of corporate power in an education system, the more that person will sacrifice his/her humanity, ethics and sense of duty to their fellow employees in order to serve the exclusive interests of the corporation.  I suspected that the school system would reject mediation outright.  I even wondered if I would gain an advantage by being the one who was willing to submit a compromise proposal.  I might even appear to be the force of moderation while my opponents in the upper echelons of the school system would take on the role of uncompromising heartless bastards.

I told the OCR mediator that I had changed my mind and I was indeed interested in mediation.  We worked out a proposal that reduced my twelve accommodation requirements to just three.  The number one accommodation was air conditioning in my classroom; my medical documentation demonstrated a clear need for a controlled-humidity and temperature indoor air environment.  The second was that the half-assed remediation of the custodial room would be finished.  I insisted that the floor boards on the wooden shelving at floor level be raised and examined to make sure that the wet unpainted underside of the wood was not contaminated with mold.  I do not even remember what the third accommodation in the proposal was – it didn’t matter.  I could have asked for a 99-cent duster to clean my room – it would have been rejected.

The OCR mediator contacted me by phone over the summer of 2010 with the news that the school system had rejected the mediation proposal outright.  The school system did not even make a counter-offer.  The mediator seemed quite put out by the school system’s rejection.  He had not expected such an abrupt response.  I thanked the mediator by phone for his hard work and I wrote him a nice letter expressing my sincere appreciation for his effort.   

This ended my effort to negotiate a compromise proposal using an OCR mediator.  My discrimination complaint would now move to the investigation stage. 


POSTSCRIPT: In November of 2010, I met with two representatives from the school system’s EEO Office for the first time.  I asked an EEO manager why the school system had rejected mediation back in June.  The EEO manager seemed confused.  “I was told that you had rejected mediation!”  I pointed out that I had been told by the OCR mediator that the school system had rejected the mediation offer that we submitted.  “In-ter-est-ing!” she replied slowly and deliberately with a coy smile on her face. 

Interesting?  What kind of an answer was that?  I was dumbfounded.  How could the school system managers tell the EEO staff that it was me who had rejected mediation?  I had helped write the mediation proposal that was submitted to the school system! I did not even receive the courtesy of a counterproposal! 

Clearly, some upper managers in the school system had screwed up.  They had rejected mediation and then lied to the EEO Office about it.  It was a sad commentary on my school system that the upper managers not only lie to teachers, but they lie to each other. 

Mold Wars - Part 2

Sources of Water Damage in a Building
by Lee Thomassen
[My school system provided a short report concerning water damage in my school to the Office of Civil Rights in 2011.  Said report was obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request in October of 2011.  On advice of Counsel, I am noting that it is the opinion of the school system that damage from water intrusions in the building has been minimal and has been dealt with appropriately. Several areas of the school that suffered water damage during the 2010-2011 school year were not reported to OCR. ]

The school that I work in has individual unit ventilators in each classroom with no universal air ventilation system in the overall building.  Only the main office area has a forced air system for air conditioning and ventilation that uses duct work and operates throughout the year.  Individual classroom unit ventilators handle the air intake and filtration.  The units exchange air in the classroom with fresh air from the outside.  This allows carbon dioxide to be removed from the classroom.  In the old days before the units were installed in 2004, the indoor air environment would be saturated with CO2 by the end of the day.  Drowsiness and headaches were the primary result.  The units provide heat during the winter from hot water pipes attached to a boiler, but they do not provide air conditioning.  The school is a sweltering furnace at the beginning and end of the school year.  The custodial staff often works in 100 degree temperatures with 90 percent humidity during the summer months. 

The unit ventilators have a filter that can catch large airborne particulates like dust.  They cannot stop something as small as a mold spore or airborne bacteria.  There are better filters available, but they are not purchased for teacher classrooms.  It is the policy of the Dept. of Facilities to change the filters every three months.  Prior to my complaints, they were replaced at my school every seven to thirteen months.  Being the squeaky wheel has its advantages – my filters are now changed every two months!  That does not preclude cheating – on August 19, 2011, my seventeen-year old daughter and I made a surprise inspection of my room.  The date on the filter indicated that it had been changed on August 31, 2011, a date that was still twelve days in the future! 

As an educator, I read Chapter 8 of Surviving Mold with particular interest (“The Belperons: A Family Adrift in a Sea of Ignorance”).  The Belperons faced exposure to multiple toxins both at home and at school.  On page 175, there are several important references to water-damage in schools.  After a storm, “…carpet and building materials were being thrown out of the second floor…” to waiting dumpsters below.  “In the second reference, “Pipes froze and burst, roofs leaked, and waste water holding tanks backed up.”  A Nor’easter had torn away “…a portion of the roof flashing, only to reveal that significant sections of rain and ice barrier were never installed.”  This is more information than most parents get about water damage.  There is an unwritten rule in schools that parents are not to be informed about building issues that could affect the health of children.  It is tantamount to treason for a teacher to confide information about an unhealthy building to a parent.  Not that school systems actually have anything to worry about.  It is my experience that most teachers in a school building are blissfully ignorant about the majority of indoor air quality issues. 

The type of ventilation system in a building has a major effect on how widespread the damage will be.  Universal ventilation systems in a water-damaged building tend to cause poor indoor air quality in a large area of the building.  Without a universal air circulation system to facilitate the spread of spores and airborne bacteria, schools like mine tend to have localized areas of contamination. 

As a teacher and an eye-witness, I will record what I have observed about the types of damage caused by water intrusions in my school building and how that damage was handled by the custodial and facilities personnel.  As a rule of thumb, water intrusions have multiple points of entry in a water-damaged building.   The following areas with water-damage are of particular concern in my building:

1.    The main lobby and the gym lobby – sometimes it is hard to tell if ceiling panels are wet because of a hydrostatic leak related to an aging flat roof or a leaky sprinkler system or even pipe condensate.  The lobby areas in my building have a combination of the first two.  The flat roof is over fifteen years old, and a good storm can saturate a ceiling panel overnight.  A gaping hole in the ceiling panel array with a large trash can underneath it is a good indication of a roof leak.  We had three large trashcans in the lobby after Hurricane Irene swept through Maryland in August of 2011 (with additional trashcans on the second floor).  Replacing a school’s roof is an expensive proposition.  Likewise, shutting down and draining the pipes in the heating and sprinkler system is a major time-consuming procedure that can only be done during the sweltering summer months when the school is largely unoccupied.  If the pipe joints have asbestos solder, federal AHERA regulations come into effect and that can cause a dramatic increase in the repair’s price tag.  The Department of Facilities has provided a reservoir of replacement ceiling panels to “swap out” the damaged ones.   When Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, County Executive Jim Smith and MD State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick visited my school on November 11, 2009, over two-dozen water-damaged ceiling panels in the main lobby and gym lobby were “swapped out” prior to the visit (we even got additional cleaning staff that week!).  In August of 2011, the policy of replacing water-damaged ceiling panels ceased.  A dozen gaping holes in the ceiling panel array greeted parents during National Education Week, but it probably looked better than wet and water-stained ceiling panels.  On November 21, when the parents were safely out of the building, the gaps were filled with new ceiling panels.   A stack of unused ceiling panels sits in the abandoned boy’s shower room adjacent to the gymnasium for future swap outs.  Needless-to-say, bacterial activity in the lobby has the potential to be a serious health issue for the students and staff.

2.    The library and adjacent hallway – there was a major flood in the fall of 2005. A failed pressure test on the new heating system caused an improperly installed cap to blow.  The huge photocopier below the pipe was destroyed by hundreds of gallons of water flowing unimpeded from the pipe.  The second floor library, the library workroom and the book storage room were all damaged.  The art room (119) and two adjoining work storerooms on the floor below had cascades of water flowing down the walls.  The library has also had water intrusions caused by two leaky air conditioners.  Until they were replaced with new energy efficient models in 2010, the two antiquated air conditioners would get books wet and create large puddles on the floor.  The hallway outside the library has had several sprinkler pipe leaks as well.  If anything shows signs of visible mold, whether it be a book or a ceiling panel, the evidence is removed from the building by environmental services personnel and disposed of off-site without writing any reports or collecting any scientific data.  If the custodial department thinks that no one is looking, they will use subterfuge to deal with the problem in their own unique ways.  In one instance in the spring of 2011, mold was scrubbed off a second floor ceiling panel in the hallway near the library by a custodian and the damaged panel was left in place.  In other instances, mold-contaminated ceiling panels were quietly disposed of in the school’s dumpster without notifying the school’s environmental team or the Dept. of Environmental Services.  In a more brazen instance that I wrote about in Surviving Mold, the mold under a sink unit in the library workroom was scrubbed clean by a custodian even though the school system’s industrial hygienists were en-route to the school to inspect it.  You would think that the perpetrator would get in trouble for such a blatant destructive act of environmental evidence.  Nope – inspecting the mold was just a formality.  It was going to be declared harmless anyway. 

3.    The first floor custodial room, the Dark Room (the old photography room), the art and foreign language storeroom, and the boys bathroom – this cluster of four adjoining rooms has had a string of bad luck.  A clogged drain in the custodial sink (shown below) backed up and overflowed three–times monthly throughout the 2009-2010 school year (and probably in multiple years before that).

Flooding Sink in School With Mold ProblemsThe water would go through the bottom of the wall and flood the adjoining art and foreign language storeroom and the boy’s bathroom.  As if this bathroom did not have enough problems, a clogged pipe was causing a toilet to erupt like a geyser and overflow daily for six weeks in the spring of 2011.  Then to add insult to injury that same spring, a roof leak funneled water into the Dark Room and destabilized the asbestos floor tiles.  Three of these rooms are less than ten feet from my classroom!  With three serious sources of water intrusion in such a compact place, the Department of Facilities had its hands full.  Solutions that were done correctly include fixing the place on the roof where the new window construction was allowing water in.  Plumbers had some success in 2011 in opening up the two clogged drains.  The asbestos tiles were replaced in the Dark Room, a book room and the art/foreign language storage room.  Despite these successes, the Custodial Room still has a heavy smell of dirt.  My recommendation was that the top plank of the wet wooden shelving at floor level be pulled up to clean out any accumulated dirt (and mold), but that has not happened. 

4.    Classrooms – A second floor Spanish classroom had a small leak in the ceiling  in the fall of 2010 (probably from a sprinkler pipe).  There was no prior history of mold or water intrusions in this room, yet some of the most aggressive toxigenic molds in the school developed visible colonies in this classroom during that ill-fated fall season.  Several first floor science classrooms had water stains develop on the ceiling panels in 2010 (probably from overhead pipes).  Mold formed on a ceiling panel in an 8th grade science classroom during the summer of 2011.  A second floor math room had a huge round trashcan next to the teacher’s desk to catch the water that flowed into the classroom following rainstorms.  On back-to-school night, water was coming down into the trashcan even though it had not rained in three days.  There must have been a reservoir of water trapped on the flat roof from clogged drains. 

5.    The Weight Room – This basement room holds the weight-lifting equipment used by the Phys-Ed Department and the local Recreation Center.  In September of 2011, it flooded badly during Hurricane Irene and again during Tropical Storm Lee.  It had flooded on previous occasions during the 2010-2011.  There is a two inch riser with wet unpainted wood at floor level in this room.  The Department of Facilities stationed two high powered fans in the room to help dry it out.  It did a good job pushing humid air from one part of the room to another.  On September 8, 2011, an industrial-sized snake “roto-rootered” the outside drain that was causing the stairwell to fill up like a bathtub and flood the weight room after every storm.

6.    The School Kitchen – Mold developed on a wet ceiling panel in the food manager’s office during the summer of 2010.  The damaged ceiling panel was surreptitiously disposed of by the school’s custodial staff on or about October 14, 2010.  This remediation did not show up in the school system’s report to OCR.  I did not learn of the mold contamination until after the event, so I was unable to affect a microscopy study or ERMI.  The custodian who removed the panel was ordered not to tell anyone.  The following Monday, she came to my room and told me.  In fact, the entire night custodial staff was told on December 9 that they were not allowed to talk to me anymore.  I know the exact date because three of them came to my room later that evening and told me.  Ten months later in October 2011, I saw mold on a water-damaged ceiling panel in the kitchen and I got to it first.  The majority of the sample was Aspergillus ustus, but interestingly, there were small amounts of Stachybotrys chartarum and Chaetomium globosum present in the mold sample. 

7.   Miscellaneous storage rooms and hallways with water-damaged ceiling tiles – There are places on both floors of the school which have water stains on the ceiling panels from leaking sprinkler pipes or the leaky flat roof.    As bad as roof damage can be, leaking pipes on the first floor are equally worrisome because they can sustain fungal and bacterial growth throughout the school year.  Leaky pipes can nourish a fungal colony even when the heating system lowers the humidity level below 60% for much of the winter.  I check these rooms and hallways periodically for signs of mold growth. 

This is the water damage that I am aware of and have been able to document since 2005 (additional water damage prior to 2005 is documented in Surviving Mold chapter 20).  For all I know, I am only scratching the surface.  One thing that I can be sure of – there are schools across the country with descriptions of water damage just like what you read here and in Surviving Mold.   By keeping water damage a secret, there are parents of sick kids with environmental-based illnesses running from one doctor to another who are oblivious that there is anything wrong with their neighborhood school. 

In an age of ever-shrinking facilities repair budgets, the issue becomes whether or not a school system can successfully deal with the aftermath of water intrusions so that they do not lead to the growth of bacteria and fungi that can be pathogens to human health.  Parents expect school systems nationwide to protect the health of the children who have been entrusted into their stewardship.  Budgetary and fiscal constraints can make that expectation moot.  Should a parent suspect that the building is causing their kid to be sick, principals are armed with reports from facilities personnel noting that the building in question has been thoroughly examined X-number of years ago and it received a clean bill of health.  Once a building gets an IAQ clean bill of health, the report is paraded around like it is written in stone and anyone who challenges it is considered a heretic.  

One of our environmental personnel once told me and my former principal that our school had not had sustained any serious water-damage that could lead to the growth of toxigenic mold; therefore, there cannot be a mold problem within the building.  It is a perverse form of self-serving logic – deny the existence of water damage and that allows you to deny the existence of species of mold, metabolites and bacteria that can be pathogens to human health. 

The school system’s health office, however, made its own determination independent of the water-damage debate.  It is their job to analyze the attendance in all of the schools on a yearly basis and compare them to each other.  They were clearly concerned about the high rate of student absenteeism.  According to their statistical analysis, my school was one of the top five sickest schools in the county during the 2009-2010 school year (and that is out of 175 schools and centers).   Our road to bacterial and fungal perdition was paved with the absentee notes of our sick student population.