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Mold produces poisonous spores

HELENA - Employees of the State Compensation Insurance Fund were not told that mold found in the basement of their office building can produce poisonous spores, but 14 Corrections Department workers were evacuated last week when a similar discovery was made in their building.

An April 3 memo to a State Fund executive said tests had revealed three types of toxic fungi spores found in the agency's building that can cause allergies and a variety of other symptoms.

But a notice sent to State Fund employees two days later made no mention of the possible toxicity, saying only that the mold "may have the potential to affect health."

Mark Barry, senior vice president of the State Fund, said the advisory to workers accurately reflected management's belief that the mold posed little danger to staff.

"We assessed the situation as being a minimal risk to our employees," he said. The building has a sophisticated ventilation system that would have prevented spread of any fungi spores, he said.

"We felt that we were pretty timely in getting information out, given there wasn't a great deal of risk," Barry said.

He said the room where the mold was found March 27 was immediately sealed off. Samples were taken from the 12-foot square patch of mold and sent to a lab in Arizona for testing, he said.

Air samples also were taken in the building, and results of those tests should be available next week, Barry said. In addition, experts will search the building this week for any other traces of the mold.

Barry said no workers have reported illnesses they suspect may be caused by the fungi.

Meanwhile, employees of the probation and parole office at the east end of the Corrections Department headquarters were moved to temporary quarters across town last week when evidence of a similar mold problem was discovered.

Mike Cronin, department spokesman, said Friday that air samples taken in the building found an unusually high concentration of fungi spores, similar to the types detected in the mold patch at the State Fund.

The samples were taken a week ago after a year of worker complaints about a musty smell in the basement rooms occupied by the office, he said.

Cronin said some workers had reported allergy symptoms and one employee has frequently been sick with cold or flu-like symptoms.

"There is no cause for panic," he said. "It is a problem and we've got a plan to deal with it. It's a relatively easy problem to solve and people shouldn't expect that they're going to be facing serious illnesses from it."

Cronin said Dr. Robert Jones, the head of medical services for the department, said the fungi - called aspergillus and penicillium - are normally found everywhere and pose no serious health danger. The spores usually die when exposed to fresh, dry air, he said.

The April 3 State Fund memo, written by senior loss control consultant John Gasper, said aspergillus and penicillium toxins can produce symptoms ranging from allergic reactions to pulmonary emphysema. Aspergillus toxins have been shown to cause cancer in animals, he said.

Gasper described another type of fungi that was found at the State Fund as "poisonous by inhalation." Called stachybotrys atra, the fungi can cause flu-like symptoms, sore throat, diarrhea, headaches, fatigue, dermatitis and intermittent hair loss.

He said animals injected with the toxin from this fungi developed bleeding in the brain, thymus, spleen, intestine, lung, heart, lymph nodes, liver and kidney. It is also is believed to cause cancer in the liver and kidney, he said.

His memo said areas with humidity over 55 percent with temperature changes offer the ideal places for toxic spores to develop. Because the basement of the building does not have those conditions, Barry said, officials do not believe the mold is actively producing spores.

Gasper's memo outlined elaborate precautions necessary to clean up the substance. Workers must wear respirators and protective clothing, and the building's ventilation system - the most common path for spread of spores - must be vacuumed and washed, he said.

Barry said employees worked in the room where the mold was found until a month ago when remodeling work began. The mold was found above a suspended ceiling.

He said workers still occupy offices across the hall from the room, which remains sealed off.

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