Expert suspects mold in FCSO Ops Center illnesses, suggests HVAC changes
Updated 11 p.m. Aug. 27.
An expert commissioned by the sheriff to review the evidence concerning the county-owned Sheriff's Operations Center building believes that the methodology used in previous studies — which declared the building safe — was flawed, and that the building likely has a mold problem that could be fixed with alterations to the HVAC system. The original tester disagrees.
With employees saying they didn't trust the testing commissioned by the county, Sheriff Rick Staly and the county invited CDC National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health experts to look into the issue. They'll arrive Sept. 5.
Staly also contracted with a local expert, Robert A. Sweeney, to review the data from the previous testing. Staly noted in an Aug. 22 email to county commissioners that he knows Sweeney — the two attend the same church — but "are not social friends," Staly wrote.
"His only directive was to review all the documents from A-Z on the Operations building and to provide me with an unbiased and professional opinion based on his review, which I believe he has done," Staly wrote in the Aug. 22 email. "As you can see after you read it, his review is comprehensive and comes to a significantly different conclusion than ESi and H2H based on the testing results that was done by both Esi and H2H. He has also recommended a very comprehension mold testing procedure and recommendations for significant improvements to the HVAC systems, which I believe can only be accomplished by HVAC replacement based on what the county administrator has previously told my team and I on the inability of the current HVAC systems to handle true HEPA filters as recommended in Dr. Sweeney’s report."
Staly also emailed Sweeney's report to CDC officials, noting in his email that 21 FCSO employees have said they want to speak with the CDC team when it arrives.
Sweeney, according to a bio he provided to Staly, has a PhD from Ohio State University in environmental toxicology and water resources, served as an ecological adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, and has been hired by government agencies and corporations to remedy environmental problems, including "sick buildings." He worked for an international environmental consulting firm before forming R. A. Sweeney and Associates in 1995.
Sweeney "believes that the current conﬁguration of the Op Center HVAC system is responsible for an increased quantity of toxic mold fragments in the air of that building," according to Sweeney's 11-page report.
Sweeney's assessment rejects the findings of earlier reports by Engineering Systems Inc's Zdenek Hejzlar and by H2H Indoor Air Solutions that found the building safe, but Sweeney did not test the building himself: He relied on the data collected in the previous testing sessions, which he called insufficient.
"Both H2H and ESi limited their samplings for molds and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to one collection per area assessed," he wrote. "It is unlikely that the composition of these parameters is uniform in these spaces. More informative results would have been generated if more than 1 collection was taken in each collection site; preferably 3 in the larger rooms."
Richard J. Van Dort, president of H2H Indoor Air Solutions, which is based in Palm Coast, disagreed that the methodology was flawed. Van Dort said he is board certified as a master inspector and has up-to-date credentials that Sweeney does not possess.
H2H was the first company hired by the county to test the building after the first three employees — all of whom worked in Room 129 — reported rashes. He conducted thorough testing of that room and the IT room and found no mold problems. There was no reason to suspect that other rooms needed to be tested, Van Dort said, and that wasn't his assignment.
"We did the right protocols," Van Dort said. "We cleaned up the epicenter. It was clean and free of mycotoxins."
Although Sweeney did not interview staff members who'd fallen ill, "the symptoms these people exhibited did correspond with those identiﬁed as being adversely affected by mycotoxins," a product of mold. "Likewise, the percentage of staff with such symptoms is in line with what [Sweeney] has observed among people working in buildings with conﬁrmed mold contamination."
Van Dort, who was certified as a mycotoxin inspector, disagrees with Sweeney's assessment. He said mycotoxins are controversial; the medical profession disagrees as to their potential danger to humans. But, there is widespread agreement that mycotoxins can only occur in water-damaged buildings. This building, Van Dort said, showed zero signs of water damage.
Moreover, Van Dort said, the employees have exhibited rashes; but mycotoxins do not cause rashes.
"I’ve seen enough people to see that they’re sick, that there is a problem," Van Dort said. "But mycotoxins? Not in a million years."
Sweeney also found fault with the Mold Spec Sampler used by ESi, because it wasn't designed to capture desiccated mold fragments, which are smaller than spores but can still cause health problems, he wrote.
"Many of those who worked in the Op Center exhibited medical symptoms that are typical for those exposed to mycotoxins," he wrote. "The most likely way in which those poisons entered the bodies are those made ill was by inhalation of mold fragments. Neither ESi nor H2H measured the mold fragments that are the most likely vehicle for carrying mycotoxins into lower respiratory systems. In fact, their sampling procedure largely excluded the collection of those medically critical important particles."
The way the Operations Center's HVAC system works, Sweeney wrote, the vents lack air filters, letting in outside air in which ESi had detected high mold spore counts.
The air is then sent to a UV light component of the system that is designed to kill pathogens and spores, but, "once killed, each spore fragments into numerous pieces (microparticles) many of which carry mycotoxins," Sweeney wrote. "Those small bodies can pass more readily through the primary HVAC system’s non—HEPA [High-Efficiency Particulate Air] ﬁlters."
That air is then passed through filters that aren't rated to stop the microparticles.
"The result is the continuous buildup of toxic particles in the air of the receiving spaces," Sweeney wrote. "This may explain why sheriff department staff, who experienced illnesses caused by mycotoxins, recovered when transferred to other county buildings with differently conﬁgured HVAC systems. The latter do not facilitate the creation of such toxic cycles."
Sweeney also wrote that ESi's report stated that ESi's testing for volatile organic carbon (VOC) "did not reveal any levels above the current accepted guidelines. However, in Table 7, page 36, they reported ﬁnding 2000 ppb VOCs in room 129. They had related in Table 6, page 35, that exposure to 1500 — 3000 ppb VOCs can cause drowsiness, headaches, and general malaise. Those symptoms were exhibited by some Op Center staff."
Molds emit toxic VOCs, which primarily enter the human body through the skin.
"In brief, the current VOC levels contribute to making the Op Center unsafe for occupancy," he wrote.
A POTENTIAL SOLUTION
Sweeney laid out the following series of steps for making the Operations Center safe:
1. Thoroughly clean building.
2. Complete recommended changes to HVAC systems (install HEPA-carbon ﬁlters on all units, remove or disable UV components, install HEPA-carbon filters at make-up air intakes).
3. Run HVAC system — WITH MAKE-UP AIR DUCTS BLOCKED, (closed system) - for 14 days.
4. On Day 15 sample (with HVAC system running) for 10-minute segments every hour for an 8-hour duration. 2-3 sampling devices/area tested. Sample all areas in which Sheriff Dept. staff reported adverse health reactions.
5. On Day 16 repeat testing as per Step 4.
6. Remove, inspect and change all HEPA-carbon ﬁlters.
7. Unblock make-up air ducts.
8. On Day 17 run HVAC system as per “normal” operation for 14 days (with ﬁltered make-up air being allowed into the system).
9. On Day 32 sample with system continuing to run in normal operating mode exactly as per Step 4.
10. On Day 33 repeat testing as per Step 4.
11. Analyze results from closed and non-closed operation of HVAC system.
12. Compare results with CDC standards for human occupancy.
"The above described mold and VOC sampling and analysis needs to be complete before the building should be re-occupied by Sheriff department staff," he wrote. "Reoccupation can proceed only after the results from the above sampling program clearly shows acceptably safe levels of molds, mold particulates and VOCs for human habitation."
The County Commission will meet with Staly at 3 p.m. Aug. 30 to discuss the Operations Center, and Sweeney will be there to present his report. The sheriff also noted in his email to commissioners that he plans to discuss issues the FCSO has been dealing with as a result of the evacuation and the "significantly decentralized configuration" it has created at the FCSO. The workshop will be held at the Emergency Operations Center behind the Government Services Building on State Road 100.
Brian McMillan contributed to this report.