What are the Causes and Health Effects of Mold in Schools?
Modern life has shifted our habits in a way that we spend considerably more time indoors than our ancestors. Since an early age, we are confined to indoor environments from nurseries to day-care and schools finally reaching office buildings in adulthood. In this sense, most of the air we breathe comes from controlled and enclosed environments and the quality of that air can determine our health in the long-run. Nausea, allergic reactions, fatigue, and headache are some of the most common symptoms noticed when a person is exposed to unhealthy indoor air and one of the most vulnerable groups exposed is children.
Spending a significant amount of time in schools, children’s health is directly related to the quality of the air in their school and due to their vulnerable immunity system, their symptoms can be easily aggravated. Cases of asthma, respiratory diseases, and irritations of eye, nose, and throat are commonly reported and special attention must be given to identifying and treating their cause. Among the general causes of these problems, mold has proven to be commonly associated with sick building syndrome and other health issues. Finally, as relying entirely on parent’s supervision, children are common victim of poorly kept environment and exposed to unnecessary risks in cases of bad maintenance and neglection. Therefore, understanding the causes, the general symptoms and how to address mold exposure is fundamental for both the school administration and also the parents. So, let’s get to it!
What is Mold?
Mold is a multicellular fungus that grows on any organic substance as long as they have humidity and oxygen present. As a naturally occurring organism, they can be found both outdoors and indoors and travel through the air by means of tiny, lightweight spores that find their way inside the buildings searching for new places to settle. It is important to understand that mold spores are everywhere and, given the right conditions, they can settle and grow into larger colonies that are easily spotted with your bare eye once the colony grows to a certain extent and can lead to serious health issues.
Mold is detected as multicolored dots with the musty smell that spreads out in small colonies in the environment and can be hard to detect initially as they grow in hidden spots that accumulate moisture. Being a competitive type of fungus, mold is known for releasing toxins in the environment that attack especially the respiratory system and skin exposed to the spores. The most common types of mold found in indoor environments are Alternaria, Aspergillus and Aureobasidium.
What causes mold in schools?
Mold spores can be found essentially anywhere, and therefore it is very challenging to completely eliminate the presence of mold in the environment. However, due to their extreme correlation with humidity for survival, keeping a low level of humidity in the school environment can help improve the mold control. On the other hand, incidents that present flood or accumulated humidity are prone to cause mold-friendly environments and promote their growth.
Common cause for mold in schools is plumbing leaks, condensation points along with the air vents, changes in building construction, roof leaks, gutters that direct water to the building, unvented combustion appliances or poor maintenance associated with moisture. Overall, any issues that might cause accumulation of water, increase in humidity and moisture spots, all favor the formation of mold.
Where can it be found?
As in most buildings, mold in schools can be found along with dampening points throughout the building. These might be located:
- Around pipes inside the walls
- Behind wallpapers and dry wall
- Behind furniture and appliances
- On the top of ceiling tiles
- Above drop ceilings
- Underneath carpet and carpet pads
- Underneath flooring material
- Inside HVAC ductwork
What are the health effects mold could have in children?
Since mold exposure in schools can go unnoticed for several months, long-term exposure is commonly reported and can cause a series of minor discomforts culminating in more serious conditions. Initially, cases of headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of the eye, nose throat and skin are commonly reported. Throughout time incidence of disorientation, slowed reflexes, memory problems, anxiety and depression, trembling and numbness can be seen.
In more serious cases, when exposed to black mold spores, children can present a series of circulatory symptoms such as heart damage, low blood pressure or internal hemorrhaging. Other symptoms also include ear infections, hair loss, and flu-like symptoms with reoccurring colds. Further, cases of cancers associated with mold exposure have not been reported. However, mold is associated with pulmonary fibrosis which can lead to scarring of the lungs and further develop to lung cancer.
As children present organisms still in the early stage of development, chronic exposure to mold can easily culminate in the appearance of any of these symptoms and the future occurrence of the more aggravated pathologies presented.
How to test for the presence of mold?
As mold tend to hide in dark and dampened spots, methods on how to detect mold in schools might be challenging. However, initial visual assessment can be carried out by checking areas for water stains and discoloration on walls, floors, and roofs. Assessment of wet areas such as sinks, bathrooms and water fountains areas for water stains and mold alongside with removal of accumulated water from refrigerator drip pans and air conditioning vents can also be carried out. However, in cases where visual assessment is insufficient and does not adequately evaluate the area, further analysis needs to be carried out. In these cases, air, surface, and dust sampling are recommended.
Air sampling is carried out by collecting samples of indoor and outdoor air and comparing concentration and species of mold detected. This process is carried out with stationary and personal samplers indicating exposure in a certain closed environment (e.g. a classroom), and throughout the building, respectively. As personal sampler induces the re-suspension of settled mold, the concentrations detected through this method tend to be higher than the ones found for stationary sampling.
Surface and dust sampling are also recommended to determine the species and level of mold present in the environment. Surface sampling is carried out by scrubbing swabs on the surface and analyzing the species through culture-based analysis on agar plates. Dust sampling is carried out through vacuuming the area and analyzing the sample by culture-based and culture-independent methods.
Although there is no established regulation on mold levels and thresholds in schools to determine exposure limits, it is recommended that the analytical methods carried out for these analyses are in accordance to the determined by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) to ensure adequate estimations.
How to reduce children’s exposure to mold?
As the presence of mold is strongly associated with the presence of moisture in the environment, reducing the relative humidity of the rooms is the first measure suggested to control the presence of molds in schools. For classrooms and areas that present intense traffic of students, it is recommended to keep relative humidity below 50% and in colder climates keep the humidity between 30 and 40%. Special attention should be given when lowering humidity of closed environments artificially as the relative humidity should never be below 20% since there is a risk of dry air causing the drying up of bronchial mucus.
Other measures such as fixing leaks, ensuring proper ventilation, removing carpets that have not dried out properly, and adding mold-inhibitors to pain are highly recommended to control the presence of molds in schools as well. However, despite all the preventive procedures carried out to control mold, it is important to keep in mind that these multicellular fungi will reappear in case the ideal conditions for their survival is established, demanding constant maintenance and special attention.
How can IAQ help?
Focused on improving your indoor air quality, IAQ has specialized in addressing mold problems in offices, homes, schools, hospitals and all sorts of commercial buildings. Considering recommendations of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mold infestations should be addressed by professionalized staff according to their extension and severity to avoid further health problems and proper assessment and elimination of the infestation.
In this case, IAQ can provide assistance with highly qualified team ready to assess the area identifying presence of mold, proper sampling and speciation of the mold colonies found in your environment and further cleaning of the area which will be carried out focusing on identifying moist areas, their cause and possible solutions to avoid future contamination.
Finally, IAQ has proven throughout the years to count with a highly reliable and capable team that adequately identifies, locates and addresses mold issues in a closed environment ensuring the improvement of your indoor air quality and the safety of your school and the children attending classes there. Moreover, presenting staff capable of doing mold speciation test in Singapore, IAQ provides additional valuable information on your mold infestation that could prove to be essential when addressing possible health issues presented by the occupants of the contaminated building.
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