Administration and Work Crew talk about mold on campus

Indoor mold is never pretty. In many parts of the world, it is largely unavoidable, especially in humid climates such as Florida’s. For thesis student Michael Conlen, however, mold represented more than a stubborn eyesore.

“I would cough so hard that I would vomit,” Conlen said, describing a symptom of his mold allergies, which included headaches, nausea and dehydration. The symptoms began when he moved into Dort 301 last fall. “I actually left school early last semester and went to stay at a friend’s [house] in Tampa because I was too sick to live in the room,” he said.

After meetings with Associate Dean of Student Affairs Tracy Murry, an outside company was brought in to perform indoor air quality testing. While New College does not hire a special mold expert to regularly asses the mold situation on campus — a measure that is not required by regulatory agencies — indoor air quality tests can be done on a case by case basis. Murry said one reason he decided to have testing done in Conlen’s case was because, as far as he knows, no such testing had occurred in the past five years.

“There was a part of me that was saying this is something we should do every so often to make sure, just to see that we don’t have any surprises,” Murry said.

Conlen is among 20 percent of the population, according to Director of Environmental Health and Safety Ron Hambrick, who is sensitive to indoor mold. Adjunct Professor of Biology Andrew Swanson, who spent two years identifying different types of indoor molds for a mold remediation company, said mold really is everywhere. The mold people see on indoor surfaces is less of a concern than the spores molds give off, which are what enter the air and what people breathe in. Spores, like air and cockroaches, can find their way even through sealed up rooms, through the slightest cracks in windows or spaces under doors, and just like cockroaches, you would be damned to ever get rid of them all.

Director of Facilities Maintenance and Construction Bob Mason said minor mold issues on wall surfaces are handled by the custodial staff, who wipe down the surface with soap and water — an effective method of mold removal according to Bob Baker, owner of Tampa-based BBJ Environmental, a company that makes recommendations on how buildings should handle mold problems, among other services. Baker has been in the industry for over 40 years.

Answers regarding whether or not the sealant product Kilz has been used as a form of mold remediation at New College depends on who is asked. One Physical Plant employee said Kilz can be painted on top of mold as a stronger measure to kill and prevent mold and added that Kilz is regularly mixed in with paint so that dorms can be treated for mold whenever they are painted. Hambrick stated that mold must first be cleaned such as with soap and water and only then can Kilz be used on top of it it. “Kilz … just keeps mold from growing, I believe,” Hambrick said. “You would clean [the mold] first, wash it off. And this would be something where if and when they’re painting again, they’re using [Kilz] to prevent the growth from coming back.”

Baker, however, said that Kilz neither kills nor prevents mold growth. Kilz, he said, serves to encapsulate a surface. “The industry standard is that you remove mold — you don’t cover it up, you don’t encapsulate it,” Baker said. “I think using Kilz as part of a mold remediation is always a very bad idea. I would never encourage it under any circumstances.” Baker said that mold could “absolutely” grow on top of a surface that had been painted with Kilz.

In a later interview, Hambrick said it is “not true” that Kilz prevents mold growth.

During the summer, students on Work Crew play a large role in cleaning up all the campus dorms. Many recent Work Crew members stated that they sometimes painted over mold with Kilz and believed that the product is designed for mold remediation.

“We only ever did surface stuff [for mold] so if it was spots of mold on the walls or anything we would use cleaners and clean it off,” previous Work Crew member Dolan Cochran (’07) said. “Sometimes we’d paint over a wall with Kilz, which is supposed to prevent mold from growing.”

“We were the ones actually who dealt with mold on the walls and the way we dealt with it was we would … first paint over it with a primer of Kilz … and so what that does is …  it has a chemical in it that suppresses mold and I guess bacterial growth or something,” Ruth Bearse (’08), who was on Work Crew in 2009 and 2011, said. “It seemed to work, I don’t know.”

“Usually, when Work Crew found mold — if it was just surface mold on top of the paint — what we would usually do is cover it with [the] spray Kilz, which is a primer, and the primer would kill the mold and then we’d paint over it,” Tom McKay (’07), a Work Crew member from 2008 to 2011 and a Work Crew supervisor in 2010 and 2011, said. McKay is aware that Kilz is not designed for mold treatment, but said he believes it kills mold as a side effect of the chemicals in the product.

“Sometimes we’d have to strip entire walls of plaster and such, but we weren’t getting in there and having at [it] if there was mold in the walls, which I’m sure there is,” McKay said.

Whether or not mold can penetrate a surface depends on the material of the surface. Mason said he believes the walls in the Pei dorms and B dorm are made of plaster, with major repairs done with drywall, while the walls of the letter dorms and Dort and Goldstein are made of drywall. Baker said that while plaster is highly resistant to mold growth, drywall “is like candy to mold” because of the paper in the material.

McKay and Bearse said they believe that one the leading causes of mold in the dorms is that  excessive moisture is not adequately handled.  As indoor molds require moisture and a cellulose food source to grow, controlling moisture in rooms is imperative to prevent mold.

“During the summer, at least in the new dorms, to lower power costs sometimes the AC, the climate control was not sufficient, especially in V, W, X, Y and Z,” McKay said. “Sometimes it would be warm and humid in there and after a couple of weeks of that, the dorms would begin to smell really bad, which I think was mold buildup. That was really gross — sometimes the people wouldn’t even want to work in there. However, once the AC was turned back on, that would usually go away in a couple days … In the old dorms, usually the AC would be on. So [in] Pei usually the AC was on [and in] Dort usually the AC was on.”

Mason and Murry said that the air conditioning in the dorms is never turned off at any point during the summer. Hambrick said that in the long run, it would cost more to turn off the air conditioning and have to clean the resulting mold later. “If you totally turned [the AC] off … it would be very expensive to have to clean walls and carpet,” Hamrbick said. “You wouldn’t want to do that. To my knowledge, we don’t totally turn anything off altogether here — I think the dorms are left on most of the time.”

Bearse, however, said that in her experience, the air conditioning in all the dorms was generally turned off during the summer until Work Crew finished painting, at which point the air conditioning would be turned back on to allow the paint to dry. She said she often saw mold growth on carpets while the air conditioning was turned off.

“The first thing we would do is we would turn on the air conditioning full blast … to get the humidity out and pretty frequently that would actually solve the problem,” Bearse said. “[We also] aimed fans at [the carpet], drying out the whole thing, and then the mold would just kind of go away.” Bearse and Murry both said that at the end of the summers, Stanley Steamer comes in to clean the carpeted dorms.

Mason and Murry, however, said while the thermostats in dorms may be set to a higher temperature in the summer, the air conditioning does always remain on in order to lower humidity levels and prevent mold growth.

McKay said that moisture in the older dorms seems like the main cause of mold, but also an unavoidable problem. “Whenever we had severe mold problems in Pei, it was almost always due to leaks from old plumbing, it seemed like, or water dripping down through the walls because it’s an old building,” McKay said. “I think that [there are] small leaks in the building.”

Bearse also noted leaks that she said were sometimes inadequately handled. “Especially in Pei, there were problems where it was obvious that the ceiling was leaking in some way, or in B dorm too, where it was clear that water was dripping somehow in between the walls or through the ceiling, so you would see the pools of brown moisture that you see sometimes when you look up at a ceiling that’s been leaking,” Bearse said. “Often times, unless the problem was pretty bad, we wouldn’t necessarily be catching it up. Sometimes we would plaster those cracks to try and prevent water from seeping more, but often times we would just paint Kilz over it and be like, ‘OK, well hopefully that will solve the problem’ … instead of really dealing with the source of the problem, which is the water that’s dripping through the walls and the ceiling.”

Bearse said that Work Crew also reported all leaks to maintenance or the acting Work Crew boss.

Mason and Murry said Work Crew may be handling issues they should instead be reporting to Physical Plant or Housing. “Is it the education, is it the training, or is it just that they’re assuming tasks that are too beyond the scope of what that job should be [doing]?” Murry said. “That’s a major issue — what are they supposed to be doing, what do they think they’re supposed to be doing and making sure that we’re all on the same page about that … I think most of the training that has been done for Work Crew … has been done by the Work Crew supervisors, so there may be things that are passed down from generation to generation.”

Murry said that while a professional cleaning company does take care of some cleaning over the summer, he is considering having professionals play a larger role, while still keeping Work Crew. Doing so, he said, would lower the cost and time required for summer cleaning and may present a more professional way of handling mold and other issues.

At the end of the day, Baker said, even the oldest buildings in the most humid of climates can avoid a mold problem. “If a building was properly built in the first place and it’s been well maintained, it probably won’t have problems,” Baker said. “If there were errors in the construction that allowed moisture to get in or moisture to stay in the building, then you are going to have problems.”

As mold requires a food source and moisture to grow, the best way to avoid a mold problem is to leave the air conditioning running to keep the humidity out and also to keep doors and windows closed. A day’s breeze may feel refreshing, but with the outside air comes the outside — including mold spores.

Additionally, Baker, Murry, Hambrick and Mason all said that the term “mold” is commonly misused when referring to what is actually dirt. Baker said that it really takes an expert to know the difference. Murry said a lot of what Work Crew reports as mold is actually dirt.

“A lot of people think that any mold growth at all is a huge problem and that’s simply not correct,” Baker said. “Mold growth is pretty common and occasional patches of growth or small areas of growth, needn’t be a problem …. the guideline that all of us have accepted in the industry is that if the area of involvement is small — and almost everybody agrees that 10 square feet or less is probably small — then it’s probably a simple situation … not one that requires professional remediation.”

Tips to prevent and handle mold growth:

-Leave AC on and keep windows and doors closed

-Keep the room clean and throw away rotting foods—certain molds that grow on food can also grow on indoor surfaces

-Never dry-wipe mold, as doing so does not kill mold and actually transfers spores, which can lead to an increased area of mold growth.

-If you see a leak, immediately file a Work Order to have it fixed as soon as possible.

-Keep the fan on while taking a shower. In Pei, Mason said, the exhaust fans are constantly running even though students don’t hear it.