The basement of the Madison County Courthouse has historically had issues with dampness resulting from runoff seeping into the more than 100-year-old building. The Madison County Sheriff’s Office once resided there, but was relocated down the road. On March 31 work began to remediate the damp and related mold in the lower level of the courthouse. PHOTO BY JOLENE PALMER

Madison County Courthouse mold matters

Courthouse documents a likely culprit in mold spore spread

Mold was once again detected at the Madison County Courthouse, but whether or not its presence presents a health threat varies greatly from person to person.

Reports of adverse health effects possibly related to mold exposure prompted Madison County Commissioners to approve the hiring of Buffalo Restoration to perform an updated air quality analysis at the Madison County Courthouse recently.

During a special meeting on April 1 in the upper levels of the Madison County Courthouse Buffalo Restoration’s indoor air quality specialist Jean Foster presented the air quality findings from recent and past tests which have been performed since 2019.

Many in the community are already well aware that mold was an issue in the basement of the building – its presence in the past prompted the relocation of the sheriff’s office. Foster noted that mold in and of itself is not an issue, since mold is everywhere in our environment.

“It’s also, what, a 110-plus year old building that has years of accumulated dust, and pollen, and skin cells, and dead bugs, and everything else that comes in a 100-year-old building,” said Foster. “So, it’s not something that is terrifying, but it is something that is definitely a concern for a lot of people.”

Mold species of concern identified at the courthouse recently and in past tests included Chaetomium, and Stachybotrys, aka black mold. Foster said that both species are known to emit a strong enzyme which affects mold-sensitive parties.

Foster said that these two species were not found in significant levels during the most recent tests, thanks in part to HEPA filtration systems which clear the air and appear to be doing their job. However, the existence of these hardier molds indicates the water damage issue has been going on for some time.

The biggest issue facing the courthouse, said Foster, is mold contamination on documents, as mold loves paper products. “The bigger problem I see in this building is that the documents are kept in vaults that are affected,” said Foster. “And those documents are moved throughout this whole building.”

A full mold cleanup of paper and documents is done on a table with a downdraft vent – every single page is HEPA vacuumed. Directly water-damaged papers are photographed and then disposed of.

“It’s extremely extensive and expensive, but that’s what needs to happen to stop spores from spreading,” said Foster. She also emphasized the need for gutters on the courthouse, a project that’s currently scheduled to be completed as soon as the company contracted to do so can get it completed.

Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart said the document cleaning process is not being pursued at this time.

Mold spores are also likely being spread by the maintenance crew when they vacuum, as they do not have HEPA filters on their vacuums, and carpeting tends to hold onto dust and spores.

First-time tests of the county’s GIS office vault, located on the upper level of the courthouse, identified mold spores as well as visible mold growth.

“Opening that vault is affecting the GIS office, and then wherever those documents go, the mold spores follow,” said Foster, noting that the building has radiators rather than an HVAC system, so the spores are at least not being spread that way. “Instead, it’s being spread by our activities as well as air circulating and things settling, like dust bunnies.”

This information likely came as no surprise to Madison County GIS Tech Analyst Tommy Luksha who brought his ongoing health issues to the Madison County Commission’s attention in March, prompting the latest air quality testing.

As an immunocompromised individual, Luksha felt certain mold was playing a part in his respiratory-related issues along with other ailments. On March 30 the Madison County Commission approved Luksha’s request to work remotely, and since then he said his health has been on the up and up.

Other molds were also identified in the recent test. These species are less studied, but also less known to cause health issues. “But they certainly can,” said Foster, who explained to a meeting attendee that the presence of mold is only an imminent health hazard if your body can’t handle it. “It’s really up to your system, what it’s going to react to, the significance of that reaction, and how quickly when you leave the scenario that you’re going to recover.”

Another attendee wondered about EPA regulations related to the existence of mold in the building. “There really are no regulations,” said Foster, “and again, it’s because everybody reacts to it differently and every environment has a normal fungal ecology… because every location is different… there’s no way to set a limit or a standard.”

Foster said she stands by the 2019 recommendation by Buffalo Restoration which stated that drainage must be corrected to allow water to flow away from the building, and when that water source is stopped, interior repairs should include removal of all affected porous building materials.

“You have to stop the moisture, otherwise it’s a losing battle,” said Foster.

Mold remediation started in the basement of the courthouse on March 31, with a local contractor removing water-damaged materials including sheetrock, old carpet and tiling. Madison County Sheriff Phil Fortner was there with a deputy assisting in the work, removing old documents that could be disposed of in the contractor’s dump trailer parked outside.

Commissioner Hart said that priority will now be to mitigate water intrusion at the courthouse, including getting gutters installed as soon as possible, as well as excavation work on the west and east sides of the building to force rain and snowmelt to flow away from the building rather than into it.

Hart said no decisions have been made as to the future use of the courthouse’s basement, but he said his guess would be that it’ll become storage rather than office space.

Mold 101

During the special meeting Foster provided a plethora of information regarding mold and its effects. Here are some of the takeaways.

Mold doesn’t affect everyone – some are more inclined to reactions to its presence. Studies on people impacted by mold in day-to-day scenarios suggest about a quarter of the population is mold-sensitized and continue to build sensitivity throughout their lifetime. “It doesn’t mean that you’ll never recover, your system might just function more slowly,” said Foster.

Mold is also everywhere – from penicillin to cheese. It feeds on cellulose – wood, paper products, drywall paper and the like. It’s essential for the breakdown of organic materials. Aspergillus is so common it’s found in almost all buildings, said Foster, even in operating rooms. Some molds, however, have a more negative impact on humans.

Foster explained the lifespan of mold in a water damaged building – bacteria, already present, begins to thrive almost immediately. Within two days some types of common molds can present themselves. Mold’s digestive enzymes then emit a gas, akin to paint fumes, which kills the bacteria and allows the mold to quickly take hold.

If something remains consistently wet for three weeks or more, said Foster, “target species” which includes black mold, can appear and emit even more enzymes which kill off the initial mold growth.

Target species of mold, of which there are five known to exist, are much more studied than the common initial mold species, Foster explained, and are known to cause potentially significant health effects to mold-sensitized individuals. This is not a common occurrence in Montana’s dry climates, but scenarios with consistent leaks do allow the target species to grow.

Mold, like grass, will go dormant if conditions needed for it to grow including moisture, temperature, and minimal light and airflow change. If the water damage dries up, mold doesn’t go away or get any better, but can easily reawaken over time if moisture returns.

It causes health problems while it’s actively growing via the digestive gasses it emits. Symptoms are the same we associate with allergies like hay fever: itchy eyes, scratchy throat, cough. Mold is also damaging to sensitized individuals once it dries out and microscopic spores enter the air we breathe.

N-95 masks, useful in the pandemic, are also helpful in keeping mold particles out of respiratory tracts. HEPA filters will also do the trick. “But, the biggest thing is to actually fix the scenario and stop the moisture from intruding and causing the mold to grow or reactivate,” said Foster.

Chaetomium, an opportunistic mold that requires immunocompromised individuals, such as those with lupus, or pregnant women, or those recovering from the flu, to present issues. It can present as a skin irritant with itchy eyes and rashes a common side effect for those sensitive to it.

Black mold – Stachybotrys – may be the most well-known mold. While it’s called black mold, it’s not always black. This mold is “sticky” and more likely to cause significant health effects – this can range from brain fog to headaches and coughing. In fact, said Foster, many of the symptoms attributed to Covid can also be attributed to black mold exposure.

An allergy test at a doctor’s office is not usually required to confirm someone has a sensitivity to mold – Foster said an individual’s body will likely tell a person all they need to know. Someone who works or lives in a mold-affected area will notice symptoms tend to worsen throughout the week, only to abate once the person has left for the weekend or on vacation, and then return once they’re back in the moldy environment. There is, however, a blood test that can be done to check for mold toxicity.

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