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Published in Print: November 19, 2003, as Increasing Numbers of Schools Are Grappling With Mold Problems

Increasing Numbers of Schools Are Grappling With Mold Problems

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More and more schools are contending with the annoying, sometimes frightening, and often expensive issue of mold. And without a clear scientific consensus on the subject, they're in a quandary.

Some experts are calling mold "the new asbestos," a harmful substance that can ravage the vulnerable health of children and staff members with asthma and allergies. Others point out that mold is everywhere and say it's harmful only in very rare cases.

No firm count of how many schools have been closed because of mold or otherwise been seriously affected by it is available. But people watching the problem say the number of closures and cleanups has increased markedly in 2003. Incidences have cropped up in just about every state, and dozens of schools did not open on time this fall because of mold.

"There's a growing awareness of the problem by school administrators and parents, which means people are taking action more quickly," says Judy Marks, the assistant director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, based in Washington. Instead of sending school janitors to clean up a mold problem, she says, a school is now more likely to shut down temporarily and call in experts to make sure the building does not pose health hazards.

In many cases, that reaction is extreme, but with little knowledge of the actual health dangers of mold, schools are in a bind, many authorities say.

"There are no standards" for dangerous amounts of mold in schools, says Fred Krimgold, the director of the Virginia Tech Center for Disaster Risk Management, located in Alexandria, Va. The center studies and calculates the probability of natural and man-made disasters, including mold, primarily for the insurance industry. "There's a lot of spectacular media attention, but the underlying reality is that there are a great number of uncertainties and a great deal of scientific controversy in the field."

Some 100,000 types of mold exist, and about 350 are believed to be harmful to at least some individuals. The overarching cause for mold is excessive moisture, which creates mold spores when combined with organic materials at the correct temperature.

Since 1999, there has been a 300 percent increase in the number of mold-related lawsuits filed, according to Susan M. Hickman, a Chicago-based environmental lawyer who represents school districts. More than 10,000 cases are now pending, she says, and "a significant portion of those involve school districts."

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 23, Issue 12, Page 29

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