What's Living in the Walls?

Jim Crane was used to problems. As the general manager of a hotel, his job was to keep the small problems from becoming large ones. So, containing the leak in room 529 of his Best Western Springdale (outside Cincinnati) one day in May 1998 must not have seemed too out of the ordinary- until he and a co-worker broke through one of the room's walls and discovered blankets of a foul-smelling dark fur growing everywhere they could see. For the next year, Jim and his co-workers plunged into the clean-up task as they simultaneously tried to keep the hotel operating and manage the guest relations problems. When Jim developed a chronic inflammation of his nose and lungs, he was diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which became pulmonary fibrosis. He is now fighting for his breath and life, and has brought a lawsuit against the hotel.

The disgusting fur that had invaded the hotel was determined to be a mold called Aspergillus, commonly found on cereal grains and hay. The mold produces spores that migrate and survive- a mold spore can travel from Texas to Minnesota in a week and live 40 years. When the Aspergillus mold spores hit a moist surface, they can begin digesting what they land on, and then produce more spores. They thrived on the accommodations provided at Jim's hotel: inside the walls the plumbing leak had caused a relative humidity above 70%, helped by the tightly sealed building. Rooms with walls exposed to the outside tend to be colder and therefore have a higher relative humidity at the same water vapor pressure. That also may have been a factor in the mold's spread.

What Jim didn't know has almost killed him. He didn't know that a large contamination of mold may be a biosafety level 2 hazard, needing professional cleaners with appropriate protection. To date, there are no federal, state or city regulations on how to evaluate the health effects of mold contamination and certain other indoor biological pollutants.

References:

Conlin, Michelle. 2000. Is your office killing you. Business Week, June 5, pp.114-122.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2000. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/moldresources.html

New York City Department of Health. 2000. Guideline on assessment and remediation of fungi in indoor environments. http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doh/html/epi/moldrpt1.html#remed