First Air Tests for Mold Show High Levels Across New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, November 17, 2005 (ENS) - Thousands of homes filled with standing water for weeks after Hurricane Katrina, then drained and left to mold are everywhere along the streets of New Orleans' residential neighborhoods. Now the damp surfaces are streaked with black mold that can be deadly, and other types of mold spores that also pose a health risk.

New air quality tests taken by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) show that airborne mold levels in the ruined city pose a serious health risk to returning residents and workers.

The tests raise concerns that federal officials are neglecting a major safety threat affecting thousands of people both indoors and out, the NRDC says.

The findings are the first publicly available air quality tests for mold in the city since Hurricane Katrina. They were released in New Orleans Wednesday by NRDC and a coalition of local organizations, including Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Holy Cross Neighborhood Association.

"I came back to my neighborhood and found mold growing all over the walls of my house and my neighbors' homes," said Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower 9th Ward. "But there was no information provided by FEMA, EPA, or anyone else about whether it was safe and what I should do to protect myself. I didn't know I needed to be wearing a respirator, or even where to go get one."


A resident walks through her damaged home where mold growing on all the walls and furniture in an attempt to salvage personal items, but she is not wearing a protective mask. (Photo by Patsy Lynch courtesy FEMA)
Indoors, homes are full of mold, but outside the air is also thick with mold spores. The NRDC collected air samples for mold spore analysis in 14 locations across the New Orleans area over the three days from October 17 to 19, about six weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Nine of the locations had been flooded. The levels of mold spores in the air were high inside homes, and outside, especially in the areas that flooded, the NRDC found.

"The outdoor mold spore concentrations could easily trigger serious allergic or asthmatic reactions in sensitive people," said Dr. Gina Solomon, M.D., who led the NRDC research team. "The indoor air quality was even worse, rendering the homes we tested dangerously uninhabitable by any definition."

Federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are not monitoring mold levels in flooded areas, and have not helped residents cope with the mold problem.

While there are no U.S. regulatory standards for either indoor or outdoor levels of mold spores, the NRDC says it is the government's responsibility to ensure the public is protected from the dangerous health risks.

"The federal government is falling down on the job by not addressing the public health impacts from mold," said Monique Hardin of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

"Federal officials can and should be telling people whether it's safe to return to their homes," Hardin said. "They can and should provide respirators and protective equipment to returning residents and workers. They can even bar people from re-entering dangerous areas or order clean-ups."

The National Allergy Bureau of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology considers any outdoor mold spore level of greater than 50,000 spores per cubic meter to be "very high."

The spore counts outdoors in most flooded neighborhoods tested by NRDC - including New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward, Chalmette, Uptown, Mid-City and the Garden District - topped out at 77,000 spores per cubic meter at one site in Chalmette, and 81,000 spores per cubic meter at another site in Uptown.


Thousands of houses were destroyed by the hurricane and are now covered with mold. (Photo courtesy )
The indoor site in Uptown had a spore count of 645,000 spores per cubic meter, and the indoor site in Lakeview had 638,000 spores per cubic meter. By comparison, the bureau considers outdoor mold counts of 1 to 6,499 "low," 6,500 to 12,999 "moderate," and 13,000 to 49,999 "high."

Mold growing on damp surfaces releases spores that can be inhaled. Some molds also produce chemicals known at mycotoxins that may be toxic to humans.

Mold can cause congestion, sneezing, runny or itchy nose, and throat irritation; more serious symptoms include major allergic attacks, cough, asthma attacks, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis (a pneumonia-like illness with difficulty breathing and fevers). Some studies have shown that outdoor levels of mold spores are directly associated with childhood asthma attacks.

The groups urged the federal government to provide clear, consistent information about appropriate precautions, and on how to eliminate mold in homes and other structures. They say federal officials should also offer personal protective equipment such as respirators, and mold remediation assistance, especially to low-income and other disenfranchised communities that otherwise could not afford to rebuild.

Since September 30, the day after Hurricane Katrina struck, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been warning residents that mold in their damaged houses could create a health problem.

Water-damaged homes provide a moist environment for mold to flourish. It is often visible as a fuzzy growth or a discoloration of surfaces. It may be accompanied by a musty, earthy odor or a foul stench, FEMA says.


Walls of a flooded New Orleans home covered with black mold. (Photo courtesy FEMA)
Residents are advised to use care when cleaning up the mold. People with respiratory problems should not spend time in houses with mold. Those who are sensitive to mold spores may experience wheezing, difficulty breathing, nasal and sinus congestion, burning and watering eyes, dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or skin irritation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that anyone going into a mold-ridden house to clean up should wear a mask rated n95, available at hardware or building supplies stores. They should also wear rubber gloves.

If mold is on hard, non-porous materials like tile or floors, the surface can be washed with a household detergent or disinfectant and dried thoroughly. A mix of one-half to one cup of chlorine bleach to one gallon of water can be used for disinfecting. This should only be used in well-ventilated areas. One should never mix bleach with ammonia; it produces toxic fumes.

Fans at open windows or doors can be used to help with the drying out process, but they should blow outward, rather than in, to avoid spreading the mold. FEMA advises that residents should not use air conditioning systems until the equipment has been checked out by a professional. If the system has mold inside, using it will spread the mold throughout the house.

Porous materials such as carpet, mattresses, upholstered furniture, insulation and ceiling tiles with mold should be discarded. Workers should wear the masks and rubber gloves while handling anything that is suspected to have mold.

Wallboard, drywall and particle board are also porous and should be discarded. FEMA warns that water can travel up inside these materials two feet or higher than the visible water.