Mold found in fine arts center

Dave Shinall

DeLaina Givens has dealt with respiratory problems most of her life. Since she came to Western two years ago, those problems have gotten worse.

The Georgetown junior, who suffers from chronic bronchitis, has regularly attended classes in the fine arts center. She said her bronchitis often flares up after she enters the building.

She became more concerned recently when a professor told her about FAC’s mold infestation.

An air quality study performed Aug. 6 by Pathogen Control Associates of Norcross, Ga., revealed “elevated” concentrations of 17 common molds and other unidentified fungi and yeast colonies in nine rooms in FAC and the building’s foyer.

This is not the first time the university has received reports of mold infestation in campus buildings.

Last fall, the university received complaints from faculty and staff in Tate Page Hall about mold. At that time Western said it would install new pipe valves and insulation, replace air handlers and fan coil units and clean the air ducts to remedy the problem. The university also moved some faculty from their offices.

Faculty in several other campus buildings have also complained in the past about mold infestation and, like FAC, those buildings were tested.

FAC is the latest campus building to receive reports of mold.

Several faculty and staff in FAC have complained of health problems they believe are caused by the mold. Others also worry that the mold is damaging equipment, including musical instruments housed in FAC.

Givens said the mold might be the cause of her bronchitis flare-ups.

“I coughed a lot more and my condition got much worse when I came into this building, but I never paid any attention to it until I heard of the mold problem that was going on in the building,” Givens said. “Maybe that’s what was causing me to cough so bad.”

But Dr. Allen Redden of the WKU Health Center said it would be difficult to establish a direct link between the building’s mold infestation and any health problems.

“That would take a lot of testing,” Redden said.

Music department head Mitzi Groom said faculty in FAC have reported respiratory problems that may or may not be caused by mold.

Still, she worries more about the health of music students who have to breathe deeply to sing or play wind and brass instruments in small practice rooms and FAC’s recital hall.

Public Affairs director Bob Skipper said the tests performed by PathCon showed the types of mold found in FAC were non-toxic.

He said the toxic forms of mold, known as “black molds,” did not show up in any of the samples taken by the testing company.

While the forms of mold found in FAC are non-toxic, PathCon’s report stated some strains of the mold found in FAC, if highly concentrated, can cause infections that are life-threatening. They could also cause skin and ear infections in people with compromised immune systems, the report said.

PathCon’s report revealed high concentrations of mold in the building.

However, no one can say for sure how unhealthy FAC’s mold infestation might be.

“There are no governmental regulations concerning permissible numbers of fungi in environmental samples,” said Kimberly Kirkland, laboratory supervisor for PathCon, in a report dated Aug. 20 to Western’s Environmental Health and Safety director Charlotte Reeder.

Reeder and Facilities Manager Charlie Wolfram refused to comment about the mold problem in FAC and deferred comment to Skipper.

Skipper said FAC’s mold infestation is caused mainly by the building’s concrete walls. The concrete attracts and holds moisture – a prime catalyst in mold growth.

He also said few summer classes were held in FAC, so it remained closed more than other buildings on campus, promoting mold growth.

Inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning is likely another cause, Skipper said.

“I think part of our problem is related to having an aging HVAC system,” said David Lee, dean of Potter College Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, whose office is on FAC’s second floor. “It simply doesn’t deal with humidity issues very well.”

Since PathCon issued its report, Environmental Health and Safety has spent almost $6,000 on 33 dehumidifiers, 28 fans, two portable air purifiers, office ozone treatments and chemical decontamination of the ventilation system to fight the mold in FAC, Skipper said.

Maintenance personnel have also cleaned mold from ceilings, walls, carpets, furniture and books in the nearly 157,000-square-foot concrete building.

About 150 faculty and staff work in the 29-year-old building, and hundreds of students attend classes there daily, Lee said.

Like Givens, some faculty and other students find it hard to work and go to class in the building.

Part-time art instructor Yvonne Petkus said she can only work in the art department’s slide library on the fourth floor for a few minutes at a time before becoming ill.

“The air flow seems to be stagnant in here,” Petkus said. “And every time I work in here, I definitely get a headache and even have trouble breathing, so I end up bringing everything out and working elsewhere.”

She compared her reaction to the onset of an asthma attack.

“It seems like there’s something in the air,” she said. “I mean, I don’t see mold or evidence of that, but the physical reaction is almost immediate in here.”

Mold and humidity on the third floor have damaged many of the music department’s 65 pianos.

“Just about all of them are affected in some way or another,” said Dwight Austin, piano tuner and music instructor.

Pianos require about 52 percent relative humidity to stay physically and musically sound, Austin said.

The mold and humidity can cause pitch stability problems and internal damage.

High relative humidity levels, which breed mold, have been measured throughout the building. Levels as high as 82 percent have been measured in the hall outside the art department’s fourth-floor office.

One piano damaged by mold and humidity was a 9-foot concert grand piano, valued at $85,000. The music department owns three concert grands. The rest are upright pianos, each valued at about $5,000, Groom said.

Groom called FAC’s recital hall “a hot spot” for mold and humidity. At one point this summer, she said, the recital hall’s hygrometer measured 100 percent relative humidity.

“But that’s only because it wouldn’t go any higher,” Groom said.

Theater and dance department office associate Nanci Hall suffers from asthma and complains of headaches and skin irritation she blames on the mold in her first-floor office.

“Without a complete dehumidifying system, I don’t see the problem going away,” Hall said.

A small air purifier given to Hall by Environmental Health and Safety hummed softly in a corner near her desk.

The Herald is continuing to investigate these and other problems with air-borne irritants in campus buildings and who, if anyone, is affected.

Reach Dave Shinall at [email protected]