Mold in K-12 Schools

Mold is a new watchword for many insurers that is often placed on the radar of K-12 schools concerned with health, safety and the overall environmental hygiene of the school environment.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mold can be found almost anywhere as long as moisture and oxygen are present. This includes wood, paper, carpet, foods and insulation. Excessive moisture causes mold, controlling indoor moisture is key to preventing mold growth and development.
Molds reproduce by making spores that usually cannot be seen without magnification. Tiny airborne mold spores find their way through spaces land on a damp surfaces and digest the organic material that they land on. They subsequently can damage material and property and pose health risks to human beings exposed to them. For a school, this can be students and staff, which poses a great concern for school management.

Is Mold Really a Problem With K-12 Schools?
“I believe mold is a big issue in elementary schools for several reasons,” says Tony Abate, vice president of Operations for AtmosAir Solutions — a manufacturer of bi-polar ionization indoor air purification systems. “One is that many schools were designed many years ago without any type of central ventilation systems. Since airflow within the spaces is insufficient and the natural leakage will bring in spores, this environment of low airflow and spores being brought into the spaces provides a good breeding ground for mold. A second reason is, in the life of a school or any other building, various things happen — water spills, broken pipes, roof leaks, etc. These are often cleaned by in-house custodial staffs who are not trained professionals in the proper techniques to deal with water issues. Lastly, and this is especially true of schools in the southern half of the U.S., warm humid summers are the norm, and in a effort to save energy these schools that typically do have central HVAC systems will shut down the systems or run them very minimally. Warm, humid environments with little airflow also are a good breeding ground for mold.”

According to Abate, a small mold remediation in an average elementary school will cost on average around $200,000, and the cost of ill health effects to students, teachers and staff is impossible to calculate. Therefore, environmental standards are key in ensuring that new construction and renovations maintain some standard of environmental compliance.

 “From my perspective, mold only poses a health risk to people when there are high concentrations of spore growth in an indoor environment,” says Howard White, a certified restorer and executive vice president of Maxons Restorations in New York City. “While restrooms are typically a breeding ground for bacteria, mold growth is a different issue entirely. Most institutional bathrooms employ the use of ceramic tile, porcelain or other dense non-porous materials. These materials along with plaster and concrete generally do not support mold growth of the hazardous kind.”

White points out that mold’s function in the natural environment is to breakdown organic matter and is very efficient at doing just that. “The health problems like respiratory issues stem from people reacting to the mycotoxins that spores produce as they breathe or reproduce,” he says. “In building construction, surfaces like wood and the paper backing on sheetrock are a perfect substance for mold to feed on. However, in order for mold colonies to proliferate, you need moisture along with the food source. In schools, usually it’s the hidden spaces, voids or HVAC systems that we find mold — not so much in the bathrooms. For example, the plenum above drop ceiling tiles could be loaded with dust and moisture, thereby providing a hospitable place for mold to grow. Poorly serviced HVAC systems could also be a problem.”

Risk Mitigation
For a school administrator, what steps can they take to mitigate mold risk — or should they not be so concerned with it?

“Certainly anyone with a population of children needs to be concerned,” says Abate. “Mold is common, and symptom-producing allergens, in some cases of exposure, can weaken the body’s natural defenses and develop other allergies and hyper-sensitivity to allergens. The EPA has stated the three most important factors in dealing with IAQ (indoor air quality) are source control, ventilation and air cleaning. Any school administrator should address these three issues and take steps to correct problems and develop proper techniques to address them. Very young and old people are especially affected by airborne contaminants, and the EPA states that indoor air can be two- to five-times worse than outdoor air, so addressing air quality is critical.”

Facilities maintenance in combination with a robust oversight of an agenda of scheduled maintenance and inspections might be the best way to be proactive and prevent problems before they become problematic.

“The best defense is to be proactive,” says Scott Mims, president and owner of ServiceMaster by Mimsco, based in Alabama. “Set routine maintenance schedules for the HVAC system, routine general cleaning of the school and mitigate any water intrusion rapidly using properly trained and certified remediation companies and/or staff.

“One common problem I see when inspecting a mold contaminated building is that what once was a small leak or water damage has progressed into mold growth due to lack of proper mitigation. A well-intended maintenance staff that did not have proper training or equipment, or faces budget restraints, may make the decision to try to handle the situation on their own without seeking professional advice. More times than not, this leads to increased remediation cost and causes the damage to progress much further and cost much more than it would have if it had been treated properly, initially, by a trained professional. There are many firms that offer inspection services for free or for a nominal fee.”

“The U.S Green Building Council developed the LEED green building certification program that building owners and operators can use to identify and implement design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions, thus helping to reduce or eliminate potential environmental issues. Some school districts are being proactive and have outside consultants perform periodic reviews of the schools systems and maintenance activities as a preventive measure,” says Gene Burch, senior project manager at RTK Environmental Group in Stamford, Conn.

Howard White concurs with other experts in the field by saying that early prevention by maintenance and inspection is key to the controlling the mold problem in schools.

“Mold prevention in buildings is all about keeping moisture out. Staying vigilant and performing regular inspections are the best prevention. Know where the problem areas are in advance,” says White. “Look for wet materials like carpeting, sheetrock, wood or insulation. Make sure that rain and groundwater drain away from the building to prevent seepage and subsequent damage. Well-ventilated and well-maintained buildings will be less prone to mold problems. If moldy materials are found, it’s best to consult with a professional to discuss removal options. Spraying to kill mold is not effective, as the dead mold spores can just become a food source for the next mold colony.”

Because the health and well-being of pupils and staff is always a paramount concern of school administrators, as well as parents and school board members, no incidence of mold growth, development and, ultimately, risk of property damage and harm to health can be ignored. The best offense for combating mold is usually a strong defense to implement and include maintenance and inspections that serve to wipe out mold before it begins, and wipe it out before it becomes widespread.

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va.