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Mold Blamed for Calif. Illnesses

May 4, 2000

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ An unusual number of staffers at the California Job Journal seemed to be complaining of stuffy noses, itchy eyes, coughing, headaches and other more alarming symptoms.

``There isn’t anything more frightening than sitting in a meeting and three people suddenly have blood running from their noses,″ publisher Kathy Masera said. ``It’s like being in a bad B movie.″

After 26 of her 30 employees fell ill, Masera began to think more than a virus was to blame. She decided to bring in a specialist: an industrial hygienist.

Days later, the staff canceled plans for New Year’s celebrations, decontaminated every piece of furniture, office equipment and paper, and evacuated the place.

The consultant, Matt Pheatt of Atlantic Pacific Environmental, had diagnosed the 6,000-square-foot office with three types of mold _ penicillium, aspergillus and aspergillus niger. He said the slimy black mold probably caused the symptoms that afflicted the staff.

The mold was caused by a leak that developed over Thanksgiving weekend and left standing water in the bathroom for four days, Pheatt said. Masera said the mold grew so fast under a refrigerator that it glued the water tray to the floor.

Some experts weren’t surprised by Pheatt’s findings. They say houses, offices and classrooms around the country have had problems with toxic mold. In Austin, Texas, last month, an elementary school was closed after officials found mold in the walls and embarked on a $2 million cleanup.

Outside scientists said that while they have not examined the Job Journal employees, the symptoms they described have been linked to the three strains of mold.

``It sounds like a typical case of mold-induced illness,″ said Dr. David Rosenstreich, director of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. ``The most common problem is the classic allergy symptoms _ nasal symptoms, sinusitus, shortness of breath, coughing.″

More severe reactions can include lung infections, fever and weakness, he said.

Scientists emphasized that there are about 100,000 types of mold, and the vast majority pose no danger. Little traces of mold in tubs and showers are pretty much harmless, but large, odorous patches can be hazardous, said Sandy McNeel, a research scientist with the California Department of Health Services.

Also, mold can cause a reaction in some people, but not in others. Tom Sinks, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that for most people, under most circumstances, there are minimal health effects from mold exposure.

Neither the state nor the federal government tracks health complaints about mold.

Cleaning it up can be expensive. The school district in Woodland, Calif., expects to spend $100,000 to clean a classroom after mold was found behind the wallpaper, associate superintendent Russell Miller said. A warped window casement allowed water to seep into the classroom, he said.

``For mold to grow it needs three things _ water, heat and an environment that provides it with nutrition,″ Miller said. ``When the weather heated up, it started to multiply.″

Similar conditions led to a mold problem at a much newer school building _ a 9-year-old dormitory at San Francisco State University that houses more than 630 students.

The building will be closed for repairs starting after the May commencement ceremonies, and it isn’t expected to reopen by the fall semester. There is no estimate yet on what the work will cost.

At the Job Journal, Masera is looking for new quarters for her magazine.

``By the time we get done, we have to walk away from everything we own, the lost profits, the medical and health costs _ it will be well over $300,000, possibly $500,000,″ she said.