In the weeks since Superintendent Renee Foose acknowledged that Glenwood Middle School has had a recurring mold problem, teachers and parents of students have started to come forward with stories of health issues that they believe were caused by mold in the building.
One teacher told of dizziness and heart palpitations at work. Another had breathing problems that led to an emergency room visit. Multiple teachers reported students with nosebleeds, sinus infections and bronchitis. A parent said a mysterious illness that caused her son to miss 16 1/2 days during his sixth-grade year was finally starting to make sense.
The stories paint a picture at odds with assurances from Howard County Public School System officials, who say the middle school's problems have been minimal and were promptly remedied.
Meanwhile, buzz about the mold is growing among community members. A Facebook page called "Mold at Glenwood Middle School" had more than 280 likes as of Tuesday night and is active with comments from parents and teachers.
And on July 16, Glenwood Middle School's new principal, Robert Motley, is holding a "meet and greet" with the community. Though Motley didn't mention mold in his email about the event, many parents said they would be bringing it up.
"All we want is a safe school Aug. 17," when the new academic year begins for staff, said parent Vicky Cutroneo. "That's the priority."
While parents and teachers share stories and concerns online and with the school system, two Glenwood Middle School paraeducators have filed workers' compensation claims for what they argue are health issues caused by mold.
In a hearing July 8, Patricia Young told Commissioner Jeffrey C. Herwig that her problems started after a snowstorm caused the school's roof to leak. She experienced nasal stuffiness and headaches, but her symptoms would come and go intermittently – though they seemed to coincide with heat and humidity in the building, and they disappeared while she was home during the summer vacation and other school breaks, she said.
It was after Young returned to Glenwood in August 2013 that she noticed a significant change.
Several weeks earlier, according to an Aug. 9, 2013 email sent to staff by former Principal David Brown, Glenwood employees had found "minor visible mold growth" on bulletin boards, the edges of desks and on fabric chairs in classrooms. The growth had been caused by a malfunctioning air conditioning system and the summer's high heat and humidity, Brown wrote.
The school hired a contractor to clean and disinfect the areas affected by mold, according to the email.
When she came back to school, Young noticed that she was having difficulty breathing and had to use an emergency inhaler on a regular basis.
Then, in September, she experienced heaviness in her chest, a swollen and constricted throat, lightheadedness and itchy and watering eyes while in the building. She was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Howard County General Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with an asthma attack.
"I had this feeling of not being in my body," Young told the commissioner.
Linda Brown, who has worked as a paraeducator at Glenwood Middle School for 15 years, also attended the hearing July 8. Though she didn't describe her experiences to the commissioner, she told an industrial hygienist hired by the school system to test for mold in 2013 that she had "recently been experiencing repeated respiratory infections requiring medical attention."
Brown and Young both said they have seen mold in the middle school; Young said she has personally seen mold growing on surfaces "at least half a dozen times," most recently on June 17.
How much mold is too much?
Gauging what constitutes an unsafe level of mold is a difficult and subjective undertaking, according to the school system and medical experts.
"These cases are very complex," Herwig told Young and Brown at their hearing. Mold, he said, "doesn't affect everyone. You could have two employees in the same air quality and one could be affected, the other not."
"According to environmental experts, mold spores are always present in the atmosphere, inside buildings as well as outdoors," HCPSS Spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove wrote in an email. "Spore volume varies continuously from day to day, season to season and location to location. Mold spores may develop into mold colonies only under certain conditions, specifically when relative humidity levels consistently exceed 70 percent over an extended period."
In 2013, shortly after mold growth was discovered in several Glenwood classrooms, the school system hired environmental consultant Aria Environmental, Inc. to test the building for humidity, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and mold spores.
An August 2013 visit to the school found that the humidity in sample classrooms ranged between 65.9 and 79.3 percent, higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended relative humidity levels of 30 to 50 percent to prevent mold growth.
Testing also revealed that basidiospore levels were higher in one classroom compared with the outdoors, while two other classrooms had elevated levels of penicillium and aspergillus relative to outside.
However, the report noted, basidiospores "are typically detected in the outdoor environment in high concentrations and may represent outdoor air infiltration." The total spore count for the affected room "is... not likely to be from an indoor source," the consultant concluded.
The report attributed moisture and "limited mold growth" in the building to "condensation of humid air on the water pipes serving the HVAC system in cooling mode.
"Moisture control is necessary in the crawlspace to prevent the growth and amplification of mold," the Aria consultant wrote.
Steven Cersovsky, whose son starts sixth grade at Glenwood Middle School in the fall, is a doctor specializing in preventive medicine and public health for the Army. He read Aria Environmental's report and said it showed "you clearly have a school with an environmental problem that needs to be corrected."
But, he added, the report is only a snapshot in time.
There are always mold spores in the air and "mold levels are fluctuating all the time," he said. "There's so many variables associated that it's hard to nail down any absolute connection between a certain spore count and a person's health outcomes."
School system response
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HCPSS officials have responded by pushing up a $3 million project to replace Glenwood Middle's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. According to Amani-Dove, funding for the work was projected for inclusion in the fiscal year 2017 budget.
"The building's existing exhaust system and a small portion of the existing corridor ductwork will remain after installation of the new system is complete, and this ductwork will be cleaned and examined for mold presence," she said.
Cutroneo said she'd like to see officials take a step further.
"My concern is they're going to put this expensive HVAC system in and then they find black mold behind the walls. How are they going to address that?" she said.
Amani-Dove responded that the school system has "no reason to believe mold is present behind walls, based on building design and construction materials."