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Carpet mold cleanup in Mercy High rooms stalls students' return

Mold found in classroom carpets at Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore has delayed the start of classes for 514 students for at least a week while environmental specialists clean the rooms and test the air quality, school officials said.

Mercy's principal, Sister Carol Wheeler, said the mold was discovered in the first-floor rooms in the east wing of the two-story building on Northern Parkway and has been contained. No date has been set for the opening of the all-girls' Catholic high school because cleanup work has not been completed, she said. Mercy was scheduled to open Tuesday.

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"I'm very grateful that it happened this way, rather than us discovering it after school had already started," Wheeler said this week.

Some parents were told about the opening day delay when they arrived last week to purchase their daughters' books, she said. Others were notified by mail.

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Wheeler said she received only one call from a parent who expressed concern about the mold.

She said carpeting was removed from 14 classrooms on the first floor -- though no mold was discovered in five of the rooms -- and will be replaced with tile. Two-thirds of the faculty teach classes in the school's east wing.

When the crew from Service Master Clean, a mold removal company from Alexandria, Va., is finished cleaning the classrooms, an environmental specialist will test air quality before the school is reopened, she said.

School officials don't know what type of mold was discovered because there are more than 100,000 varieties, said Joseph P. Libonati, a consultant with a doctorate in microbiology and biotechnology who is a member of the school's board of trustees. He added that the mold in the school is an airborne variety, which is very common.

Mold spores can cause breathing problems and eye irritation in people with respiratory ailments, said Hakim Farrakhan, Baltimore City's deputy health commissioner.

Farrakhan said the school, operated by the Sisters of Mercy, was not required to notify the Health Department, but his agency has offered to test the air quality when the cleanup is finished. A city health officer will visit the school Tuesday.

There is no standard to determine the toxic level of mold spores, Farrakhan said, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are doing a study to determine their effects on health. He said the department has not received any complaints about mold problems in city schools.

"This has been one of the worst summers ever for mold," said Charles Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County public schools. But, he said, the county's environmental technicians stayed ahead of the problem, ripping up carpets and cleaning classrooms.

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"It has been an ongoing concern because it has been a particularly wet year, which naturally breeds the mold," he said.

Herndon said all of the county schools opened on time Monday.

A spokesman for the State Department of Education said his agency did not have any statistics about mold problems in public schools, since any incidents would be handled by the individual counties.

Public schools in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties opened without any reports of problems.

Wheeler, Mercy's principal, attributed the mold problem to recently cleaned classroom carpets, a job that is performed every summer while students are on break. But this season's heavy rainfall and the high humidity apparently combined to keep the carpets from drying, producing ample conditions for mold growth. It was discovered Aug. 14 by the school's maintenance director.

When the cleanup is done and the air in classrooms has been filtered, new tile will be laid.

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"There will be no more carpeting," Wheeler said.


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