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College addresses mold problem in faculty office, but questions about notification remain

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Starting in early October, professors and staff with offices on the first floor of the BS building encountered a strong musty smell permeating the area.

The smell, which Student Advocate Dee Smith-Jones described as “like someone mopped the floor and let it sit,” got so bad that faculty took their concerns to Professor James Maccariella, Coordinator of Engineering Science and Civil Engineering Technology, who is a New Jersey Licensed Professional Engineer (NJPE).

Prof. Maccariella immediately suggested the Facilities Office be contacted so they could test the air. Administrative Specialist Alexandra Popescu called in the complaint on October 18 to Bryon Marshall, the Director of Facilities and College Safety.

According to a notification sent to faculty a month later, Facilities contacted the company Whitman Environmental Services for consultation and ordered air quality tests. The tests revealed penicillium mold at levels that “may present a risk to health” within the BS 137 office, which is shared by Business Professor Eva Csige and Information Technology Professor Queen Okike.

In an email updating those directly affected, Supervising Team Leader Fred Carella explained the cause of the mold was “a leak in the HVAC system in the hall outside the double doors on the east side of the business building. To determine the cause of the leak we removed the insulation from the piping.  We then repaired the piping to stop the leak from continuing.”

Professor Csige shared her concerns with Marshall after the environmental company applied a product called “Mold Zapper.” She said, “I saw the plastic over the desks and shelves but the first spraying was done without any cover. I have clothing in that room plus all of my things that are there, I feel are now contaminated even with the plastic,” wrote Professor Csige.

Three days later, Marshall sent a response explaining how the treatment of “Mold Zapper” was done, that the first try didn’t work, so it took a second round of spray with the Clorox based product, and adding, “However, respectfully we need to correct your version of the facts.  Please know that both treatments using ‘Mold Zapper’ were applied with covers over all of the equipment and personal effects.”

That same day Professor Csige wrote back to Marshall addressing her complaints about how her personal belongings were not removed from the office, “I am really not happy about this we should have been told to remove all of our things…All it needed is just a little planning and moving stuff which I would have been happy to do had I known how this will work.”

To address Professor Csige’s concerns, Marshall said the college would be willing to take fabric items to their dry-cleaning vendor and that “[the College] will absorb the cost/expense.”

The steps the college has followed to remediate the mold problem appear to have been appropriate according to an email to Marshall from Scarlette Gaudin, an Occupational Health Consultant at the New Jersey Department of Health. Gaudin wrote, “It sounds like you have taken the proper steps to eliminate the hazard through ventilation and repairs.”

However, Prof. Maccariella raised concerns over how the mold issue was communicated to the college community. Writing to college President, Dr. Jianping Wang on November 10, Prof. Maccariella said, that as a licensed professional engineer he “must hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and that if a person or firm is putting the public’s safety at risk I must report this situation to the proper authority” adding, “The college should alert the students/faculty/staff and community of the findings and remediation results, in an effort to maintain the transparency of our public institution.”

Although those people directly affected in the BS building were notified of the problem in mid-October, when the problem was found, it wasn’t until November 21, after Prof. Maccariella had sent several prodding emails, that a broadcast email was sent to faculty explaining what happened and how it had been addressed. Students were never informed.

Marshall told Prof. Maccariella via email, “I believe the student notification suggestion, via a College-wide broadcast or some other format, to be a bit more complex and therefore should continue to be handled on a case-by-case, fact-sensitive basis.”

Maccariella responded saying “[to] not notify students, staff, and faculty (other than those occupying the mold area) … is not transparent or in the best interest of public safety. I do not feel notifying the college community is ‘complex’. In fact, not notifying the community greatly increases the college liability.”

Angelica Figueroa, a Music major who talked to The VOICE, said, “Mold in the school? Ew. This can bring bad reputation to Mercer, and maybe that’s why they didn’t tell us, but if it’s related to health problems they should tell us what’s going on just for safety.”

When The VOICE asked college president, Dr. Jianping Wang, why students weren’t notified about this situation, she said, “This is an office that faculty members share, so we informed the faculty members and we relocated them, to seal the area. We don’t sent out an email to 12,000 students ‘Hey we have a mold in this office.’”

However, students meet with their faculty advisors who are located in the office and use the halls of the BS building to get to classes, and according to Bryon Marshall’s email to Gaudin at the Department of Health, the problem did extend to the hallway. He said the testing “indicated elevated levels of penicillin, 2100 ccm3 in the room/ 440 in the adjacent hallway outside of the room.” In an email to The VOICE he said that “The hallway and other readings were concerning but did not reach the action stage.”

Olivia Reiss, a Mercer student majoring in Nursing told The VOICE: “I know mold is a serious problem because I am taking microbiology class and we learn a lot about it. And I have asthma problems, I don’t know why the college didn’t let us know about it.”

The VOICE conducted a survey of 50 Mercer students and found 25 percent of them suffered from asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, asthma rates correspond to air pollution levels. A recent report from the American Lung Association shows that while air quality in New Jersey has improved over the last year, it still ranks among the lowest in the nation, and Mercer County’s air quality was given a grade of “F” based on levels of ground-level ozone or smog that resulted in  19 “orange alert” days because of bad air quality in the past year.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s publication,  “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings Guide” people with weakened immune systems or who have respiratory problems may be particularly affected by mold presence.

The EPA writes, “Many types of molds exist. All molds have the potential to cause health effects. Molds can produce allergens that can trigger allergic reactions or even asthma attacks in people allergic to mold. Others are known to produce potent toxins and/or irritants. Potential health concerns are an important reason to prevent mold growth and to remediate/clean up any existing indoor mold growth.”

As a concern for students, other faculty members expressed the same feelings as Prof. Maccariella. When The VOICE asked Professor Chris DePagnier if he felt that the college ought to notify students about mold being detected he said, “Yes, it needs to be clear disclosure and equal process with any issue on campus, but especially if it is related with health. Students should have been notified at the same time when faculty and staff were informed of this problem.”

In the EPA guide, they write: “Communication is essential for successful mold remediation. Some occupants will naturally be concerned about mold growth in their building and the potential health impacts.” They add, “Occupants’ perceptions of the health risk may rise if they perceive that information is being withheld from them. The status of the building investigation and remediation should be openly communicated including information on any known or suspected health risks.”

Other institutions have also had this kind of problem, such as in Monroe Township this October. All schools in the district were closed for a week to test the air quality after a mold contamination was found in one of the district’s schools, forcing the temporary closure of that building and sending their students to other schools, according to an article from nj.com written by Matt Gray.

In order to maintain transparency, the Township school district created a webpage called The Monroe Township Air Quality Community Task Force where residents could get the latest updates, with the purpose of keeping the public informed with the result of the tests, information about the schools’ openings and relocations.

At Mercer, even faculty with offices near the one affected had communication concerns. Accounting Professor Ken Horowitz, whose office is BS 123, told The VOICE “They claimed someone is working on it, but I haven’t seen anybody working on it recently. They may be when I’m not here.”

In addition to his concerns about communication, Prof. Maccariella also told Bryon Marshall he believed, “The college should implement immediate testing throughout the campus to verify that health risks do not exist elsewhere. The findings of the testing should be openly published.” He added, “I feel strongly that time is of the essence with this matter, as the safety of our students may be at risk.”

In an email to The VOICE, Marshall wrote that “Other buildings were not tested as we have no indication or reports of foreseeable problems or biologic contamination and/or related issues.”

The results from the  Whitman Environmental company show that the room was cleaned properly, and the right steps were taken in order to address the problem in BS 137. They also recommend the establishment of a preventative maintenance program, which Marshall has agreed to implement.

The VOICE took mold strip samples from the Engineering, Business and Liberal Arts buildings using a DIY mold kit that provides lab analysis. Results from those tests will be posted online this week on The VOICE’s website at www.mcccvoice.org.

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