There have been so many stories in the news media lately about mold-infested schools and residences that I decided to skip the installments on remediation, buildings, and preventive measures for the time being, and go right to the personal narratives of people whose lives or health had been affected. In the next issue I will try to suggest ways to recognize the danger and describe some of the options available to victims. -Ed.
The first story appeared in the January 2000 issue of the WAAC Newsletter, in the Health and Safety column:
My name is Kim Harper. Seven years ago, I was exposed to mold. I worked in a small historical museum where I managed the archival collection and, later, the operations of a twelve-building museum village.
I absolutely loved my job working with artifacts and researching family history. Much of the archival collection was housed in a 100-year-old school house. For several months I sorted through water-damaged ledgers and artifacts. Many were covered with a black soot-like dust. After a few months, I noticed I was losing my balance, my short-term memory was failing, and I began dropping things. Sometimes, it almost felt like I had been drinking. These symptoms led doctors to believe I had multiple sclerosis. My health was deteriorating rapidly.
My asthma, which was previously mild, began to bother me daily. I was taking up to 14 doses of Ventolin a day at work. My asthma became so bad that after ten months of working at the Museum, my doctor ordered a lung function test. This test showed my lung function had dropped almost 20%.
I went on to develop intense joint pain and fatigue. At first, I thought I was just coming down with the flu, but it never went away … never. This unusual flu-like illness caused confusion, extreme fatigue, and joint pain. I recall asking my board members to write down any requests because I would forget what they wanted by the time they left the building.
Slowly, I was forced to cut back extra volunteer work at the Museum. I left my Trustee position with the School Board and eventually had to leave my part-time job, and finally my work at the Museum. I went on sick leave for two months. My asthma and cognitive symptoms improved almost 90%. But this all changed when I returned to work.
After two weeks back to work in the archives, my breathing, fatigue and joint pain began to worsen. I was asked to clean a damp, 100-year-old furnace room that had chronic water problems and mold. Within two months, my lung function had dropped another 20%. I was taking several pain medications to get through the work day and up to 20 puffs of Ventolin. After two severe asthma attacks where I could not breathe, I was forced to leave work permanently. I realize now, I should never have returned to work after my sick leave. Since starting work at the Museum three years earlier, my lung function had dropped a total of 36%. My lungs were working at only 44% capacity.
After leaving work, my asthma did not get better as it did with the first sick leave. Over the next year away from work, I spent many days in hospital to help my breathing. In order to stay out of the hospital, I was forced to take large doses of medication to manage even the simplest of tasks. Doctors prescribed 38 puffs of medication a day along with Prednisone.
I have never been well enough to return to work. You see, we realized too late that work was causing my health problems. I now know that I should never have cleaned the old furnace room without proper protection.
My health has improved slightly since leaving the Museum. But without medication, my lungs are still bad. Since 1992 I have never been pain free. I have trouble managing daily activities and was forced to move from my two-story home to a home with fewer stairs.
Mold is everywhere, but if you have to work with it, take a few extra minutes to learn about it and make educated choices to protect yourself. If workers are having problems, they should stop working in the contaminated environment immediately. I would encourage them to go to an occupational health specialist experienced in the effects of mold. By knowing exactly what is making them sick, they can take the necessary protective steps. You should know that some workers will never be able to work in a contaminated environment once they have been sensitized. I only hope that everyone will understand a little protection and knowledge goes a long way.
We know many of us would never want to stop working in our exciting field. There is no need to panic, we just need to take a practical approach and take the time to get informed and protect ourselves. This way we can continue to work with the artifacts that we love so very much. Someone has to preserve our history.
If anyone would like to learn more, or would like to share their experience, they can contact the Harper Archives at email@example.com.
Regards, Kim Harper
Whitby, Ontario, Canada
[On March 16, Ms. Harper sent an e-mail message saying, in part, “I am happy to learn you are getting the word out to others…. We have spent years learning how to remove and protect our artifacts from the ravages of mold. I’m glad it’s time for us to spend some time on protecting staff. Every week I see an increased concern in dealing with the toxic effects of mold.”
[She recommended that interested people contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, where she can provide feedback, suggest websites and literature, and discuss how to approach your employer or Health and Safety Committee. She also suggested looking into the following sites:
- http://www.envirocenter.com/ENYOHPto review research by well-known expert in this field: Dr. Eckardt Johanning of the Eastern New York Occupational and Environmental Health Center in Albany, New York. He has helped museum workers exposed to Stachybotrys in Soho, New York. This site includes several resources to help identify and remediate molds. Early in March he discussed the health hazards of mold on the television program “48 Hours.”
- http://www.radio.cbc.ca/programs/quirks/archives/98-99to listen to a 20-minute broadcast on “Librarian’s Lung.” The show interviews a few archivists and museum workers who share their experiences with mold and how it affected their health. You can also contact the radio station staff by e-mail at <<>email@example.com>. Maybe they will do a follow-up.
[In the absence of clear guidelines from the government, she recommended that workers should understand how important it is to identify the suspect mold as soon as possible. “It can be as simple as taking a scotch tape sample,” she said, “and mailing it to a mycologist familiar with Stachybotrys and Aspergillus for identification. This way staff will know if they are dealing with a mycotoxin that needs more careful consideration. A photograph of the area also helps.”]
See also the Aspergillus Web Site
“This site is designed to provide information on pathogenic Aspergilli for clinicians and scientific researchers. The site includes DNA sequence data, a comprehensive bibliographic database, laboratory protocols, treatment information and discussion groups. The Aspergillus Web Site is sponsored by Alza Corporation and Ortho Biotech Inc. and the sponsors have access to the Web Site address book–as do all other Aspergillus Web Site users. The European Science Foundation has also made a contribution to the maintenance of the site.”
Robert J. Milevski, Preservation Librarian at Princeton University Libraries, related a personal experience with mold in 1994 on the Conservation DistList.
MORE ARTICLES BY THIS AUTHOR:
- Part 1, Mold: The Whole Picture
- Part 2, Assessment of Mold Problems
- Part 3, A Neglected Public Health Problem
- Part 4: Effect of Mold on Schools, Homes, & Human Beings
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: