A growing awareness of the dangers of mold and better detection measures are driving more schools to shut down and pay tens of thousands of dollars to clean it up.

Mold is a fungus that can grow on practically any organic substance, as long as there is moisture and oxygen. As it grows, it slowly destroys what it eats, emitting spores for even further infestation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said mold spores can cause respiratory problems for children and teachers, including asthma attacks and allergic reactions.

This past week shows the effect mold can have on schools. On Thursday, Somers Point announced its three schools would be closed indefintiely while it cleans and tests for mold. Weymouth Township and Northfield schools announced they would start classes later in the year after cleaning and disinfecting. Ocean City High School cordoned off a mold-infected portion of its building this week, but the rest of the school opened normally. Upper and Middle township school districts also discovered mold but cleaned it before school started.

The EPA warned it is impossible to eliminate all mold and mold spores indoors, but said they can be controlled by limiting the moisture indoors. The agency said some of the problems with mold can be linked to the more airtight way buildings have been built in recent decades. While this can limit heating and cooling costs, inadequate ventilation can also lead to moisture building up and contributing to mold problems.

Mold-remediation costs can vary wildly. Middle Township spent $5,800 in August to remove what officials called “minimal visible mold growth” from a pair of classrooms in Elementary School No. 1. However, the district also spent $184,544 between January and May to remove mold in Elementary School Nos. 1 and 2.

In Barnegat Township, the district spent more than $300,000 to rid the Cecil S. Collins School of mold by January. The district repainted the school’s walls and replaced its carpets and ceiling tiles. The school also added new bookcases, cabinets and shelving and upgraded its technology in the process.

Marylee Morinelli-Stace, who owns Coastal Environmental Compliance of Hammonton, said her company has worked with six Atlantic County schools over the past month, compared to one or two in previous years. She would not identify the schools.

She said there are several reasons for the mold.

First, it has been humid. The National Weather Service reported that the average humidity at Atlantic City International Airport was 74 percent in August, compared with the long-term average of about 72 percent. It also rained more than 8 inches at the airport between the start of August and Sept. 5, and there were 18 days of light or heavy rain in August.

Morinelli-Stace said the heating, ventilation and cooling systems of the affected schools were typically older, and the weather “just kind of pushed them over their limit to dehumidify.” Other equipment “may have had parts that were not working or were just limping by.”

Second, Morinelli-Stace said, the systems are designed to heat and cool a building full of children and teachers, and schools are mostly empty during the summer.

“We don’t have 700 kids, and that load is what causes the system to cycle on,” she said. “So they’re not cycling on. They will get to a certain temperature and shut off,” leaving the air stagnant.

Area school officials said mold has not traditionally been a problem.

Myron Plotkin, an Atlantic County field representative for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, said mold infestations are not widespread and he was unaware of any local lawsuits regarding mold exposure. Newer state laws require schools to promptly clean and correct any incidents they encounter.

Similarly, Beth A. Schroeder-Buonsante, president of the Atlantic County Parent-Teacher Association, also said she had not heard many complaints but said mold was always a concern because of the potential health problems.

Morinelli-Stace said the increase in mold-related closings may also be because people can better detect mold and are more aware of the risks. Before, she said, it was typical for school custodial staff to mop up the occurrence without any treatment of the underlying issues.

“I think that we always had mold and we never had any awareness of it,” she said. “It’s not like this is the first time we’ve had humidity in the world.”

Area school officials said the mold became evident only when the districts prepared to reopen in late August, after a hot, humid summer. Officials said they discovered the mold growth as they toured their schools and prepared them for the new year.

In Northfield, district Superintendent Janice Fipp said the mold was mostly in a second-floor closet. The locked room holds student records, and Fipp said there was no mold there earlier in the year. It was closed throughout the summer because there was no reason to access it during the break.

Once it was discovered, Fipp said, possible mold was found in a nearby lab closet. As a result, the district hired crews to clean vents and ducts in that part of the building. The mold was limited, she said, and the district plans to open Sept. 10.

“We are in pretty good shape in that we are not full of mold. There are not desks with mold,” she said.

In Weymouth, Superintendent Donna Van Horn said penicillium/aspergillus, a common mold, was found throughout the building. Crews will give 15 rooms full cleanings, while 10 will get partial cleanings, but the district is still set to open Sept. 11.

Mold removal likely will be expensive. Early estimates show Weymouth schools will have to pay about $50,000, Van Horn said, while Fipp said Northfield would probably pay between $40,000 and $50,000. Both said budgeted emergency recovery funds would be used. It is unclear how much Somers Point would pay.

Contact Derek Harper:

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