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Post-Katrina, Mold Worries Subside But Hardly Disappear

Posted: 08/18/11 08:04 PM ET

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Aug. 8, 2011 edition.

Buildings with bathtub rings and musty smells are less prevalent than in the first year or two after Katrina, but mold remains a menace in New Orleans -- which contains 45,000 abandoned structures. Pollen-like spores from mold can be health hazards when they spread.

In early August, city schools are opening for the fall semester and officials say they remain vigilant for mold. Siona LaFrance, chief of staff at the Recovery School District in New Orleans, said "the most recent, serious mold issue we had was in 2007 when Joseph Craig Elementary had to be closed and students were sent to school in modular buildings in New Orleans East." Mold was remediated at Craig in the city's Treme section, the interior was rebuilt, and the 85-year-old school reopened in early 2010.

"This being New Orleans, with a number of old buildings, there are occasions when mold problems are identified, but we try to address them quickly," LaFrance said. "We monitor for air quality and have an indoor air-quality expert on staff, working with our operations teams."

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to the City of New Orleans, totaling over $150 million for "emergency work" and "permanent work," have included mold treatment, according to the agency. Those funds are part of $10.8 billion that FEMA has committed to rebuild Louisiana infrastructure since Katrina and Rita.

"Many of our grants don't use the term 'mold remediation,' but do provide specific remediation, which might include wet vacuuming, damp wiping or HEPA -- high-efficiency particulate air -- vacuuming of interior spaces," said Manuel Broussard, FEMA spokesman in New Orleans. Grants pay for removing contaminated material, and cleaning of air cooling, heating and plumbing equipment, he said.

FEMA's infrastructure projects include New Orleans schools, police and fire stations, community centers, parks, playgrounds, hospitals, jails, roads and sewerage and water facilities. A year ago, the agency committed $1.84 billion for storm-related damage to buildings run by the Orleans Parish School Board and the state's Recovery School District.

At Orleans Parish School Board, Herman Taitt, Jr., chief operating officer, is the point man for mold. He said the system's last, major mold treatment was during the rehabilitation of Mahalia Jackson Elementary on Jackson Ave., where "mold grew after minor Katrina damage, followed by a lack of power in the area." An environmental subcontractor removed the mold, and the facility opened in April 2009 after being closed for over a year.

Taitt said if mold, wet plaster or a musty smell is reported, his staff can usually address the problem quickly as long as the area is 5 square feet or less. Any leaks are fixed and the hazardous patch is cleaned, bleached and dried. If the moldy area is bigger than five square feet, however, outside environmental engineers take a look at it.

Orleans Parish School Board member Woody Koppel, the former school board president, said mold treatment is a standard part of renovation at city schools. He said because of strict FEMA specifications for schools, new construction is typically more cost effective than renovation. Two new schools to be completed later this year are Edward Hynes Charter School in Lakeview and McDonogh 35 in the Seventh Ward, he noted.

Koppel, who happens to be a certified mold remediator because of his private construction and apartment management business, said mold has to be taken seriously as a threat to people with allergies or compromised immune systems, but he added "it's something that can be managed in buildings."

Koppel said "I worry more about drive-by shootings and swallowing friable asbestos than about mold." He's among those who advocate something other than regular bleach to address mold, saying "bleach only kills the flora, making mold seem to disappear, but it's still present." In his own buildings, Koppel relies on Clorox Outdoor Bleach Cleaner, which The Clorox Company says is a thicker formula than regular bleach.

In the city's Katrina-damaged Ninth Ward, Matthew Sheard, project manager with Lowernine.org, prefers JOMAX mixed with bleach and water to kill mold, but said "you can use any brand of fungicide." JOMAX, produced by Zinsser Co., Inc. in New Jersey is a mildew killer that magnifies the strength of bleach.

Lowernine.org, founded in 2007, has rehabilitated 25 houses, from beginning to end, with contractors and volunteers doing mold treatment. "We've also worked on a number of other houses where owners may have done mold remediation, plumbing and electrical work, but ran out of money," Sheard said.

Sheard advises "spray the JOMAX-bleach-water mixture on framing and then rinse it off. We usually treat homes three times with this mixture, between other jobs and over a period of time." He said it's easy to miss spots. "You can use a mold test kit, from Home Depot for instance, to make sure it's all gone."

Claudette Reichel, professor and extension housing specialist at Louisiana State University AgCenter in Baton Rouge, gave her advice on getting rid of mold. "Bleach can kill mold but that isn't a substitute for mold removal," she said. Dead mold doesn't reproduce, but is as hazardous as live mold -- triggering asthma and allergic reactions and causing other health effects. She said it's important to remove mold completely. She cautioned that bleach can pose health and safety hazards to users, and has no residual or lasting impact on mold. But she said bleach can be a way to kill any lingering mold that remains after removal work.

When property owners ignore moisture and mold, they end up in the mess that nearly a decade ago closed Crescent City Towers in New Orleans, the state's third tallest structure -- now called Plaza Tower. After remediation for mold and other hazards, the 45-story building is now clean, and will be auctioned in late September, starting at a minimum bid of $250,000, according to Michael Siegel, president of Corporate Realty in New Orleans.

The Crescent City isn't the only place struggling with mold. Bathrooms in hotel and motel rooms anywhere can sport mold and mildew because of inadequate ventilation, Koppel said. "I've seen mold in lots of places in Europe, especially in Venice, Italy, where it was growing on walls and seemed to be part of the local culture," he said.