The mold in the Texas Department of State Health Services building was "ugly," "nasty," "unsustainable" and "unpleasant." But never "unsafe."
That's what Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt said during the agency's first town hall meeting since moving 127 employees out of a mold-infested building on July 23. The Texas Tribune obtained a recording of the gathering.
"That was not an unsafe environment," Hellerstedt said. "It was an undesirable environment, it was an unsustainable environment, it wasn't a place where we should expect people to continue to work ... I absolutely guarantee you if I thought for a minute that there was a danger, that it was an unsafe environment, we would have really hit the fire alarm and had everyone leave the building."
The Aug. 2 meeting was held nearly two weeks after State Health Services employees whose job it is to analyze data on tuberculosis, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases were relocated from the Austin State Hospital 636 building, where a mold infestation had invaded some of their desks, chairs, carpeting and keyboard hand rests. The move was announced one day after The Texas Tribune revealed the mold incursion and reported that legal counsel was advising against putting any new staffers in the building.
Lara Anton, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, confirmed the town hall, saying in an emailed statement that Hellerstedt "was trying to provide medical context to his staff because they had expressed concerns for their health after reading the report."
"The report listed the potential health effects of exposure to the types of mold found in the building but didn't address the lower risk to a generally healthy person versus someone who is significantly immunocompromised," Anton said. "We relocated staff quickly out of an extra measure of caution and because we care about our employees' health and well-being."
Throughout the 90-minute meeting, employees expressed confusion, anger and exasperation as they spoke candidly to Hellerstedt and other agency officials about how they botched assuaging employees' fears about the potential health risks of mold exposure. State workers called out management for not moving them from the building sooner and for allowing their pleas for help with other building issues to go seemingly unheard; pushed back on agency officials' claims that a mold assessment report by an independent company exaggerated the danger; and expressed dismay about not being allowed to go inside the 636 building to get their personal belongings.
One employee who spoke to the Tribune but requested anonymity for fear of losing their job said most workers "feel worse after the town hall."
"In my opinion, they did this town hall for them to fix their image — to say, 'We had this big town hall, we fixed this, we listened,'" the employee said. "But you didn't really listen. There was always a 'but' in your statement, there is always something you had to say to save your ass."
The problems began in June when some state employees found mold around their workspaces. The Department of State Health Services tried to combat the mold by spending more than $11,000 on rented and purchased dehumidifiers. The agency also tried cleaning the carpets and temporarily relocating employees to other workspaces.
Currently, state employees are scattered around other state buildings including the Tower, Moreton, Winters and the Austin State Hospital 634 building. Some are also teleworking or desk sharing.
Hellerstedt told employees it took a long time for the agency to act after "a series of failed attempts to try and fix the problem" and that it came down to not knowing where to put employees.
"If it's not an emergency, if it's not unsafe, I think you would agree that from our standpoint as leaders and executives and administrators, we have to have an alternate plan," Hellerstedt said. "We have to have somewhere to send you to go, and we didn't have that and we still don't have that permanent solution."
He told workers he regretted that it took time to move them but was glad they were out of the 636 building.
Another employee who spoke to the Tribune on condition of anonymity said they had been looking forward to "an honest discussion about the conditions of the building" and for agency management to "really step up and take accountability." But they described the feeling in the room as "anger and shock at the commissioner's audacity."
"The commissioner’s insistence that our building was never 'unsafe' felt like a cold legal defense rather than an open and honest assessment of our workspace," the employee said.
A point of contention throughout the town hall was the accuracy of a mold assessment report done by Baer Engineering and Environmental Consulting. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission paid the firm $4,826.24 to conduct testing around the building in late June.
The report found that there was mold seen or detected throughout the dozen areas inside the building where samples were taken. Baer Engineering noted that the building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was a factor and that some of the areas had high spore counts of Aspergillus/Penicillium and Cladosporium fungi. The report listed potential health risks including sinus lesions, ear infections, allergy problems and, in rare cases, serious infections.
Texas 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.
Stephen Pont, medical director for the agency's Office of Science and Population Health, told employees at the town hall that mold "can seem like it's a really horrible thing, but we're exposed to it all the day" in buildings and outside. He said mold exposure for some people "would be similar to someone who is sensitive to pollen," including allergy symptoms like a runny nose, congestion, headaches or tiredness. He said people could experience this if they were indoors or outdoors.
"As far as significant invasive or very serious infections that are affecting organs or your blood or making you very, very ill, those are really, really, really uncommon," Pont said. "The category of folks with whom they would be more common to encounter would be folks who are experiencing a significantly impaired immune system."
Reading the report, he told employees that overall in the building, the spore count indoors was much lower than outdoors and that Baer Engineering had put in "frankly scary"-sounding health risks that only happen in rare cases. He noted that mold spore sampling is "not a very established science" and that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't recommend doing mold spore counts.
But employees expressed audible confusion during the meeting, saying that the report found rooms where the spore count was higher inside than outside.
"To come to us and to tell us that the report is written a certain way, we're just having a very visceral reaction to that given our educational backgrounds, our passion for how long we have been in that building," one employee told Pont.
Throughout his comments during the town hall, Hellerstedt said he did not want to discount what state employees had endured but claimed the Baer Engineering report paints "a very distorted picture" of the building's mold problem. At one point, he compared it to reading a warning label on a medication bottle where some of "absolutely the worst things that could possibly happen" are listed.
"I'll be completely honest: These companies, in my opinion, they are not experts in medicine, they are not medical experts, they're not really experts in the biology of mold, they're experts in getting rid of mold in buildings," Hellerstedt said. "I think a lot of the implications they have about potential health — I think they're not qualified to make those implications."
Employees were also given information on how to apply for workers' compensation.
Cathy Peterson, a workers' compensation specialist for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, warned employees that they can file a report but it does not mean the State Office of Risk Management will accept it until after investigations are conducted, Peterson said.
"They will also want to speak to the doctor," Peterson said. "Because we also live in Austin and I have allergies, and oh my god, I have lived here for like 30 years, and as I live here longer and longer they get worse and worse. So [State Office of Risk Management] bases their decision on medical documentation and it's going to depend on what that doctor says."
One of the employees who spoke with the Tribune said they felt as if Peterson and other agency officials were making workers' compensation seem like "you really have to find that needle in the haystack that proves it was the mold at work that caused this."
"They're trying to make us feel it's going to be an uphill battle to try to prove anything through workers' compensation just because of the science behind the mold or whatever shit they were trying to say," the employee said.