The Buzz on Fuzz

Mold is everywhere – especially in humid Hawaii. So when should employers be

January, 2004

Last year, when a five-star hotel asked Pacific Gold Coast Construction to inspect a mysterious growth in one of its banquet rooms, PGCC investigators showed up at the luxury resort – incognito. “Our employees wore plain shirts. Our trucks had no markings. And our tools? We were a construction company,” says PGCC co-founder John Lausevic, from his California office. The growth turned out to be mold, and the hotel fixed the problem as quickly and discreetly as it was discovered. “A five-star hotel cannot afford to lose its reputation over a mold incident,” Lausevic says. It also could not afford to lose guests and revenues – as in the case of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which spent $55 million to eradicate mold in the Kalia Tower last year.

Inquiries mushroomed in the months following the Kalia Tower cleanup. PGCC fielded dozens of calls from panicked employers. “These companies were being responsible but they wanted a (remediation) company that was really discreet and low-key,” says Douglas Converse, office manager for PGCC’s Waikiki office. The company so far has found mold at a local TV station, in several commercial buildings and condominiums and even in the home of a local university official.

COMPANIES TAKE CHARGE

Molds have affected between 800,000 and 1.1 million buildings and between 10 million and 25 million workers nationwide over the past year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, in a state as humid as Hawaii, mold is everywhere and typically harmless.

What are the telltale signs of mold? No. 1: a musty odor. “Use your nose,” Lausevic says. “If it smells, that’s the off-gassing created by mold growth.” Also, look for evidence of visible mold growth and water damage. Employers should be concerned if mold multiplies in large amounts and causes health problems for employees, not to mention damage to buildings.

“Small amounts of mold are normal, but where the problem is created is when mold gets trapped in air-conditioning systems,” says Dr. Ellen Watson, senior mycologist for Pacific Enterprises Inc. and a professor at the University of Hawaii. “It can colonize and grow in leaky pipes. Or, if there is a flood or water leaks, then molds will grow rapidly in 48 hours.” Employers who suspect their office has harmful mold should hire a reputable company to collect and test the environment, she advises.

Since the Kalia Tower incident, local businesses have been proactive. The Kahala Mandarin Hotel last summer treated its property with MicroGuard, a transparent liquid that protects surfaces from adverse effects of nature, including mold and mildew. “It’s a mold-growth inhibitor, and it doesn’t allow molds to set their roots,” says David Takiguchi, manager of Maintenance Solutions Inc., which applied the coating. MicroGuard now coats the flagstone walkway near the service entrance, as well as the tile floor of the 116-square-foot “fish room,” used to prepare meals for the hotel’s pet dolphins. The chemical also coats the bathroom floors at Waikele Premium Outlets and various buildings for the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Local companies should set up preventative programs, but there is only so much they can do,” notes Kimo Scott, co-founder of a new local group called the Institute for Mold Control. His year-old group kicked off its inaugural event last July at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, featuring speakers who addressed everything from moisture control and detection to legal issues.

ON THE MEDICAL FRONT

Dr. George M. Ewing is a Honolulu-based allergy immunologist who sees up to 30 patients every day, half of whose allergies are mold-related. Last year, Ewing treated a male patient whose co-workers developed allergic reactions to mold found in their workplace. To his surprise, the male patient had a reaction to a different type of mold found at his previous place of employment. “There’s a small group of people, who once they are poisoned with mold, have continuous symptoms for a long time,” Ewing says. Elderly employees, pregnant women and people with asthma and allergies are at risk. Employees with weak immune systems also should be wary.

Last year, Ewing launched a medical study involving about a dozen patients to determine links between allergies and specific fungi. His clinic sends patients’ blood samples to California-based ImmunoSciences Lab Inc., which “can identify if people have the serious antibodies that show that they still have mold exposure and if they’re getting a resistance to it,” he explains.

To accommodate the local demand for mold testing, Diagnostic Laboratory Services Inc. has announced the addition an Industrial Hygiene department to its existing operations. The new department will roll out in three phases: environmental microbiology; chemical analysis of environmental air samples; and asbestos and lead analysis. It was a logical extension for the Honolulu medical lab, which already does lab work for hospitals and clinics in Hawaii and the Mariana Islands. “We’ll be servicing industrial hygienists, facilities, property managers and Joe Homeowner to see if he has mold,” explains Thomas Goob, manager for DLS Inc.’s safety, health and environmental affairs department. DLS also publishes a new quarterly newsletter and has plans to create a database, based on its lab findings. The goal: to educate the local population about mold and its effects.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of people are hyping it up to be a bigger problem,” Goob says.

Mold is the cause of chronic sinus infections affecting 37 million Americans annually, according to a Mayo Clinic study. Sick buildings — or buildings afflicted by indoor air pollutants, such as mold — cause losses of up to $61 billion a year in employee absenteeism, reduced productivity, lower earnings and increased medical costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

 

TIPS FOR EMPLOYERS

  • Fix moisture problems immediately, and be wary of condensation and wet areas. Wipe up wet spots within 48 hours.
  • Keep air-conditioning and ventilation systems flowing properly. Regularly check inside air ducts and air-handling units for mold and fungus.
  • Follow your nose, because mold is not always visible. If there is a musty smell, mold may be growing behind walls, carpets or wallpaper.
  • Find out if your office’s ventilation system is close to contaminated sources. Are the intake vents (where fresh air is obtained) close to a filthy area (such as the exhaust vents from a neighboring air system)?
  • Be concerned if employees have symptoms (allergies, cough, congestion, eye irritation, aggravated asthma, runny nose, flulike symptoms and skin rashes). Do their health problems go away when they leave work and reappear when they return the following day?
  • Small amounts of mold are normal. Detergents or household cleaners can be used to clean the isolated areas in which they’re found. Completely dry the areas and dispose of the sponges or towels used to clean them.
  • The person cleaning the mold should be allergy- and symptom-free. He or she also should wear gloves and other personal protective equipment.Be concerned if the mold spreads or returns immediately after it is cleaned. It may mean that there is an underlying problem, such as a leak or flood. Hire a mold-testing and eradication company if there is extensive contamination.

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