Only one word comes to mind looking at photos that Texas Department of State Health Services employees took of gray, green and brown-hued mold dotting their office furniture: Ew.
As of July 10, as many as 127 state workers have been affected by mold in the building, with some finding mold infiltrating their desks, chairs and keyboard hand rests in the Austin State Hospital 636 building. Mold also spotted the carpet. One state worker even found mold on shoes left in the office. As a result, employees whose job it is to analyze data on tuberculosis, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in Texas have lately found themselves also researching what kind of health risks their own offices might pose.
The state agency has tried to ward off the mold — with little success. A department staff memo, emails obtained by The Texas Tribune and inquiries to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and Department of State Health Services reveal $15,721.19 spent on dehumidifiers and a mold assessment, and some workers placed on emergency leave or relocated to vacant cubicles or a nearby building. The agency is even planning for Ketki Patel, a department epidemiologist who specializes in occupational health, to lead Q&A forums about mold in the workplace.
“It is very distressing for me (and much more so for you) that there are so many significant building issues in ASH 636, particularly the high humidity and mold,” wrote Janna Zumbrun, associate commissioner for Laboratory and Infectious Disease Services for the Department of State Health Services, in a June 27 email to staff members.
The mold, which officials at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed to the Tribune, is another setback in Texas state agencies’ losing battle with building maintenance issues, which have forced them to spend money from their budgets to contract out for help. Another example emerged last year when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said its Austin building was overrun by “several hundred rats.” Typically, the Texas Facilities Commission handles maintenance issues, but Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials say the facilities agency isn't involved with fighting the mold problem.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the Department of State Health Services, hired Baer Engineering and Environmental Consulting to conduct a mold assessment in late June. That cost $4,826.24, according to Kelli Weldon, a spokesperson for the agency.
The Baer Engineering mold assessment report, obtained by the Tribune, said "visible suspect mold was observed on desks, cabinets, chairs, carpet, walls, and around skylights." The report found that throughout the dozen areas inside the building where samples were taken there was mold visibly seen or detected. Baer Engineering noted that the building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was a factor, since "cycling at nights and weekends is causing temperature and humidity issues that promote mold growth."
The company recommended the agency either professionally clean or toss all furniture contaminated by mold; remove and replace damaged drywall walls in three areas of the building; keep the humidity at or below 65 percent or the temperature at or below 82 degrees Fahrenheit; and have the building ventilation evaluated by a specialist.
Multiple workers present in a staff meeting on Thursday told the Tribune that management told them that the Department of State Health Services' legal counsel is advising against putting any new staffers in the building because of the mold. Management was unable to say what this means for current staff and couldn't give answers on where they might be moved to, the staffers said.
In an email to staff on Thursday, Felipe Rocha, director of the TB/HIV/STD Section under the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the agency was working on next steps. Those include discussing the mold report recommendations among the two public health agencies and the Austin State Hospital facilities staff; running the air conditioning on weekends and evenings "as well, basically all the time"; wiping down surface areas on a weekly basis; placing UV lights on air handlers; connecting the water drips from dehumidifiers to sink drains; discussing staff moving into supplemental space available; scheduling more frequent debriefing meetings with staff; and setting up a special mailbox where employees can send their questions about the mold situation.
The Department of State Health Services has so far spent $10,894.95 alone on dehumidifiers to fight the mold. As of July 2, the agency is renting six large dehumidifiers — $90 each for a total of $540 per day — so far racking up $9,720. In addition, the agency purchased five small dehumidifiers for $1,174.95.
Lara Anton, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in an emailed statement that the agency is “concerned about the health and safety of our employees” and asked for the mold assessment.
“We recently received the results of the assessment and we have begun implementing the recommendations to improve the indoor air quality in the building, including removal of furniture with mold on it and instructing the cleaning staff to thoroughly wipe down all surfaces on a regular basis,” Anton said.
She said the agency is working to move people out of the affected areas to other open spaces and other short-term space “while continuing the preexisting search for long-term office space to house those employees.”
Seth Hutchinson, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, said broken elevators, leaks, mice, cockroaches and electrical outages in state buildings are common problems he hears about from members. He said state workers can talk to their supervisors about these problems but nothing happens without proper funding.
“All of these issues are rampant throughout the state and state office buildings because the Legislature is not putting the money toward these maintenance problems,” Hutchinson said.
One staff member, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired, told the Tribune that department employees have expressed exasperation with how the agency has expected business to proceed as usual during the mold problem. Staffers who found mold on their chairs have been using whichever mold-free ones they can find around the office.
State workers have dreaded showing up to work, the staff member said. Employees try to wipe down any mold that’s visible but, according to the worker, “in terms of mold in the air, who knows.”
“To me, the scariest part is that you actually have people who have mold allergies,” the worker said. “There’s one person I know who has mold allergies and he just couldn’t breathe.”
Employees have also complained about how it took the agency three weeks from a recent mold sighting last month to get a contractor to come in. They’re also frustrated that there’s been no permanent fix to what they described as the office’s longtime humidity problem.
“They haven’t really done much to try and actually fix the actual problem or find the actual problem,” the employee said.
Rocha told staff in an email on June 6 that the department would relocate people into cubicles divvied up around the office and in another building about five minutes away. He noted it would be “conducive” for staff who have a laptop and can use Wi-Fi.
“I would consider you working remotely elsewhere but there needs to be a compelling reason for it,” Rocha said.
Other employees who need to stay home but haven’t been approved to work there would need to request emergency leave, he said.
Currently, three employees are on emergency leave. Anton said in an email that the agency doesn’t know how many employees are unable to work from home, saying only a limited number of employees have agency-issued laptops.
Rocha wrote in a June 7 email to employees that fans and a large dehumidifier had been brought into the office. Plus, housekeeping staff was applying an enzyme solution to the carpet “to keep any additional mold from growing.”
“What type of testing will be done to confirm that mold is no longer growing in my workspace?,” one employee replied to Rocha. “It is very important to me because I have a severe mold allergy and will need to confirm no more mold.”
Rocha responded to the employee that Patel, the epidemiologist who specializes in occupational health, was providing resources and that Rocha would be discussing testing with her and Zumbrun, the associate commissioner. The next day he emailed that the commission ordered two dehumidifiers.
The Department of State Health Services’ web page on indoor air quality warns about the risk of mold, saying its presence in a home “is an unsanitary condition that may present potential health risks to occupants.” Some health side effects, according to the site, include allergic reactions, respiratory problems, nasal congestion, eye irritation, coughing, skin rashes, headaches and fatigue.
The site says health issues from mold “depend on the amounts and types of mold present, the length and frequency of exposure, and the sensitivity and health condition of exposed individuals.” Those most at risk of severe symptoms include people with allergies or asthma, people with weakened immune systems, young children and the elderly.
“I know that this situation has been incredibly disruptive and that the mold has also affected different staff in different ways,” Rocha said in a June 21 email. “Some staff may have had their allergies exacerbated and others have seemingly not been affected at all.”
According to a Rocha email on June 22, a mold assessment consultant from Baer Engineering set up data loggers to track temperature and humidity readings. A follow-up email from Rocha after a staff meeting about the mold problem noted that the consultant would return at the beginning of the week to collect mold samples from the carpet and chairs.
Rocha wrote at the end of the email, “P.S. Don’t forget to turn off the dehumidifiers.”
In recent weeks, the agency has opted to keep them on at all times on weekdays and weekends.
But that’s becoming another point of contention in the mold saga. On July 11, the power went out in the TB/HIV/STD Section.
“We have noticed that sometimes power is going off in certain cubicles and pods so we may end up having to amend our plan to continuously run the dehumidifier,” Rocha wrote in a July 11 email to workers.
In addition, with the dehumidifiers running at all hours, employees are being put on rotation to empty them — even on weekends.
“Shelley and Jonathon will coordinate putting together a schedule of staff to assist with this duty,” Rocha wrote. “I am sure they will take volunteers.”
More troubling for employees is that the whole ordeal feels like deja vu. In May 2017, staffers were told Baer Engineering had not found a mold issue in Suite 1102 of the Austin State Hospital 636 building.
According to Baer Engineering’s report at the time, there was a “musty and stuffy feel” but “no indication of a mold concern at the time of this assessment.” However, Baer Engineering said the office’s high humidity meant there was “a higher than normal chance of future mold growth.”
On June 2, 2017, one employee wrote they weren’t convinced.
“There is black mold on the middle refrigerator next to Justin’s office, and the mini-fridge in the pump room has been largely colonized on the magnetic seal (which doesn’t seal well),” the employee said in an email obtained by the Tribune. “There may not be mold circulating in the air, but there is definitely mold in the building.”