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Mold Infestations Shut Brownsville, Texas, Schools.

By James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle. 02/04/2002

Feb. 4-BROWNSVILLE, Texas-Schools should be bustling this time of year, but in the Rio Grande Valley many sit quietly.

The discovery of mold has forced more than 3,200 students into temporary classrooms for months at a time and prompted millions of dollars worth of cleanups.

The mold infestations also have prompted a spate of lawsuits, including a $20 million settlement at a high school where 1,600 students and staff say they were harmed by mold.

School districts are suing the companies that built the schools and installed the air conditioning units, accusing them of negligence. Parents, students, teachers and staff are suing, too, contending the mold has made them sick.

Other public buildings also have been affected. A county health clinic in Port Isabel was shuttered Jan. 17 after workers noticed splotches of mold growing in the clinic and complained of hay fever-like symptoms.

Around the Valley, law firms are advertising on radio, television and billboards for clients to file lawsuits. The advertisements exhort potential litigants to file lawsuits soon before a cap on residential mold-related damages takes effect by January 2003.

Mold is by no means a problem unique to the Valley.

In Austin over the weekend, school district voters approved a $49.3 million bond issue to pay for mold removal and preventive maintenance in 91 schools. The Texas Department of Health said at least 10 school districts have reported mold problems in the last year.

"This is not limited to the Valley - it's widespread throughout the southern half of the United States," said Rene Ramirez, an attorney from Pharr. He has represented three school districts in mold-related litigation.

A number of things contributed to the mold problem in the Valley.

Ramirez blames the design of some recently constructed buildings. They were not built with moisture in mind, he said.

"In my opinion, the people who are constructing the buildings are not taking into consideration the humidity factor down here," he said. "In some cases, they bring down designs that are intended for dry weather and bring them into humid environments and that's when you have problems."

Quade Stahl, chief of the Indoor Air Quality Branch of the Texas Department of Health, said changes in construction techniques also contributed to the problem.

Mold can feed on the gypsum wallboard that is used in most buildings, he said. Plaster was not as conducive to mold growth, he said.

Carpeting can be a breeding ground for mold, Stahl said. Older public buildings did not have carpeted floors.

The widespread use of flat roofs also contributes, Stahl said, because they increase the difficulty of tracking down leaks.

There are no state or federal air quality standards for mold, Stahl said. He said school districts can takes several steps to head off the problems.

"One would be to prevent or fix water leaks or damage, and two, maintain the humidity below 60 percent at all times - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said.

Better building methods might also contribute to mold growth by eliminating drafts and keeping moisture from evaporating.

Some blame the school.

"When I find a mold problem, I find (air-conditioning) operators who don't know what they are doing," said a consultant for attorneys defending contractors and air-conditioning companies.

The Brownsville school district has probably been the hardest hit by mold of any in the Valley.

An elementary school and a middle school have been closed since Christmas for mold cleanup. Officials said 1,800 students have been displaced. Those who could not be placed in other buildings are attending classes in 61 portable buildings set up on parking lots and soccer fields.

The cleanup has cost the district $917,000 so far. Drue Brown, of the district's public information office, said officials have no idea how long the project will take or how much it will ultimately cost.

Middle school Principal Guadalupe Leal said students and teachers are making the best of a bad situation.

"We may be a little crowded in certain areas but other than that we're doing OK," he said.

The district filed a lawsuit against the eight companies that built or supplied the air-conditioning units for the schools on Jan. 7.

More than 470 parents and teachers filed similar lawsuits and are also suing the eight companies that built the schools and installed the air-conditioning systems. There are 477 plaintiffs in the personal lawsuits, said attorney Peter Zavaletta.

He said mold has been a recurrent problem at the elementary school since 1997.

Zavaletta said the health of many of his clients has improved in the weeks since the schools closed.

In nearby San Benito, mold was discovered in an elementary and middle school last summer.

A $1.4 million cleanup is about 95 percent complete at the elementary school, said Roger Barrus, executive assistant to the superintendent. The cleanup at the middle school will cost $4.4 million, Barrus said.

As in Brownsville, classes were moved to portable buildings during the cleanups. The district is suing three air-conditioning contractors.

The small, rural school district in Santa Rosa had to relocate 350 high school students to an 80-year-old elementary school because of mold. The high school has been closed since May when mold was discovered in all its classrooms, and remediation efforts are proceeding slowly.

A $23 million high school in Alamo had not been open long when mold was discovered. The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district sued its contractors, and the case was settled last June for more than $20 million.

The health claims of 1,600 students and school personnel are pending.

The recent spate of lawsuits in the Valley is just the beginning, the consultant predicted.

"These problems are present in most school districts, this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

From: IAQ News - What's Happening in our schools
International Union of Operating Engineers

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