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
The Brownsville school district has probably been the hardest hit by mold of any in the
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
"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
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
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
"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
Back to Mold News Main Page