May 2, 2006 – The mold problems that have plagued several St. Croix schools in recent months have found their way into the St. Croix Legislature complex. However, the man who was hired to conduct a study on the problem said Tuesday night, "Right now it's not to a point where people need to evacuate the building."
John Verstraaten, a certified microbial remediation specialist, said there is a dangerous toxic mold living in the ceilings of the building at the Lagoon Street Complex, but so far it has not become airborne. But it could, Verstraaten said, and he was clear to point out that the ceiling tiles where the mold lives "should come out as quickly as possible."
Senate President Lorraine L. Berry said she hoped work to remove the dangerous tiles could begin as early as next week. In the meantime, all employees are expected to come back to work.
Berry had given St. Croix Senate staff Monday and half of Tuesday off until she could arrange a meeting with the staff and Verstraaten.
Berry said after complaints of itchy eyes and other ailments came to her attention in February, she decided to have the study conducted.
She said after hearing what Verstraaten had to say Tuesday she was not at all concerned about sending employees back into the building.
Berry said she told employees she knew about respiratory concerns. "I had a son that died from asthma," she added.
Verstraaten said at the highest level the mold in the air was 1,320 spores per cubic meter. At Woodson Junior High School — which Verstraaten also tested, and which has been closed for months — the count was 137,000 per cubic meter, he said.
Verstraaten said scientists disagree on what is an acceptable level. Some say 2000, others as little as 1,500 per cubic meter; Verstraaten draws the line at 500 – "just to be on the safe side."
But he is not particularly concerned about the building's more benign airborne mold. He said it's the Stachybotrys, or black mold, that has his attention.
In his report to the Legislature, Verstraaten said black mold has been linked to acute pulmonary hemorrhage, especially in infants and others with compromised immune systems.
He explained Tuesday night in a phone interview that "mold is a single-cell living organism that is difficult to kill."
He noted that the mold can lie dormant, adding, "That's the problem."
Verstraaten said when you try to kill the mold, it tries to protect itself by "increasing tenfold." He said it is important not to send inexperienced people in to deal with it.
However, Verstraaten said mold can be prevented with proper maintenance and that he recently tested several buildings on St. Croix, which were completely mold-free.
He said the other problem is the material used in the ceiling tiles. He said the cellulose paper tiles used in the Legislature complex are not appropriate for the tropics, adding that "it breeds contaminants."
But even with paper tiles, Verstraaten said mold can't take hold if water and moisture are kept out of the building. He has recommended the use of styrofoam tiles, and according to Berry, all of Verstraaten's recommendations have been approved by all seven St. Croix senators.
Verstraaten's report said the worst area found was in Sen. Terrance "Positive" Nelson's office, where the mold count was 1,320 per cubic meter.
In general, Verstraaten said, mold affects people differently, especially in small quantities.
"Some people are allergic, some aren't," he said, adding that while black mold is toxic, it's rare in the Virgin Islands. He said in the five or six years he has been testing buildings in the territory he has only run across it once before.
"Stachybotrys chartarum (SC) is a greenish-black mold that grows on material with a high cellulose content, like ceiling tiles and drywall," Verstraaten wrote in his report. "Many times you won't even see it, as it grows between walls and other hidden places. It likes darkness and moisture."
He said SC releases toxins that cause flu-like symptoms, memory loss, muscle aches, diarrhea, dermatitis, cancer, necrosis and lung hemorrhages. "Doctors have associated this type of fungi with the instant death of several infants in Cleveland."
Verstraaten said at this stage, however, you would have to touch it or get it in your mouth to be in danger of any of those symptoms occurring.
As it is confined to ceilings that scenario is unlikely, he said.
"They called us at the right time," he said.
According to Berry, all seven senators have agreed to accept Verstraaten's remediation plan.
"All the senators met so we could have a unified position," she said. "We're all on the same wavelength, which doesn't happen very often."
Senate Vice President Ronald Russell agreed that he had no concerns. He was satisfied with Verstraaten's plan, which involved taking a staggered approach, whereby the worst areas would be cleaned up first. Russell pointed out in a phone conversation Tuesday night that St. Croix had an unusual amount of rainfall last year. "Last year was a very, very wet year."
Russell acknowledged, however, that regular maintenance is called for.
The employees will be moved out of the areas being worked on, Berry said. She has offered the use of her large office to the displaced workers.
Berry said some employees were not reassured by Verstraaten's comments to them on Tuesday.
"All of them will never be reassured," she said. "A few have their own physical challenges, and they are using this as the reason."
She said, "I hope the employees realize we are concerned … and will do what we have to do to protect their health."
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