Sunday, August 24, 2003

It's a lovely summer - if you're a mold

Soggy weather is awful for noses and throats, decks and pools, crops and gardens

By Dan Klepal and Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Six weeks of above-average rainfall this summer has left Greater Cincinnati with high levels of mold, fungi and algae that have affected people's health, stained outdoor decks, clouded swimming pools and stunted growth in gardens.

Bill Davidson watches as Mike Carroll with AAA Emergency Services, Inc. rolls out a product the team uses to contain the mold during removal.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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Mold counts are 15 percent above normal this summer, environmental experts report, as rain drenched the area almost every other day in July. Rainfall was nearly double the average at a Cheviot collection point last month, National Weather Service statistics show.

And when mold counts hit a summer high of 12,573 spores per cubic meter on July 17, people like Jessica Andrews were miserable. Mold counts over 10,000 affect all people with allergies to mold, and often send extremely sensitive people to the hospital.

"For me, it makes it very difficult to breathe and my nose goes crazy," says Andrews, 18, of Anderson Township. "I have to take my medication right away or my symptoms get really bad."

Mold can grow just about anywhere - even on glass - with a drop of water and a patch of shade. It thrives under hot, humid conditions.

Blue mold is a particular problem for tobacco farmers in southern Ohio and throughout Kentucky because it acts as a parasite and kills the plants. Just the threat of a blue mold outbreak is enough to do economic damage, because the Chinese government refuses to accept any tobacco from areas infested with blue mold.

And the wet weather has dampened crops throughout the region. John Johnson, who buys the fruit and vegetables for his three Country Fresh Farm Market stores in Greater Cincinnati, said he hasn't seen a year like this in the two decades he has been in business.

"The rain has had the most bizarre effect on the produce that I can ever remember," Johnson said. "It has affected everything from the flavor to the availability. It's been a screwy year."

For gardeners, the wet, cool weather has been a plague for tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis and other vegetables and fruit.

Carol Glotfelter, of Clermont County's Union Township, says her home garden is producing 30 percent fewer tomatoes this year because of the heavy rains. But it was the mildew that zapped her zucchini plants, she says.

And people with swimming pools, like Mike Bresler of Monfort Heights, have been constantly battling algae all summer because of the wet, cool weather. Bresler has spent more hours than he'd like to count scrubbing the sides and corners of his in-ground pool.

"It seemed like no sooner than we would scrub it off and dump some chemicals in, we'd have a rainstorm," Bresler said. "If we didn't get right on it again, the algae would come back."

Click to view this PDF file (126k) containing charts showing details about mold counts and how they affect humans.
(Enquirer infographic)
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Hand me a tissue, please

High mold counts add up to a ton of suffering for people allergic to the spores molds release when trying to reproduce. Those tiny spores enter the body through the nose, mouth and skin. The results: runny noses, headaches, watery eyes and skin rashes.

Some species of mold, such as toxic black mold, can cause severe problems such as memory loss, lung diseases and even brain damage.

At Hamilton County's Department of Environmental Services (DES), a machine captures mold spores out of the air each weekday. Those spores are then counted under a microscope - about 250,000 spores can fit on the head of a pin - to come up with the daily mold count, published on the Enquirer weather page.

Harry St. Clair is in charge of DES's air quality division. He says his data show the mold count was up about 15 percent this summer.

Spores are the mold's means of reproduction, released into the air to land on a surface suitable for growth.

And sometimes the spores land in noses.

Andrews knows when the mold counts are high. She says she feels it first in her throat and nose, which typically begin to itch.

About 20 percent of the population is sensitive to the chemicals released by spores, says Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati who also runs the Bernstein Allergy Group Inc. Those chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are produced when the spores feed on flesh, plants or other organic material.

"That musty smell represents VOCs being released," Bernstein explains. "It's very bothersome for some people."

A 1999 Mayo Clinic study blames molds for most of the chronic sinus infections that afflict 37 million Americans each year. More recent studies associate mold with allergies, asthma attacks and an increased susceptibility to colds and flu.

Everywhere the wind blows

Molds don't just harm people.

Blue mold, which damages tobacco, caused an estimated $200 million in damages in 1996. It can penetrate the stem of the plant and choke off the flow of water and nutrients. It is spreading rapidly throughout Kentucky, where every county in the state is under a warning or watch for the fungus this year.

"We have a very threatening level of disease that is quite capable of causing economic damage on every farm in the state because we do not know where those spores will blow tomorrow," says Bill Nesmith, a University of Kentucky plant pathologist.

Fungus diseases grow in wet soil. Powdery mildew has affected such garden plants as pumpkins, squash and common lilacs.

"The fungus diseases are worse when the nights are wet," says Mike Klahr, Boone County horticulture extension agent. "Bacterial cells multiply from one cell to a billion cells under constant wetness."

There is a positive side to the wet weather: Most flowers have thrived in it.

"The flowers are doing awesome," says Ken Puhlskamp, general manager of the Burger Farm & Garden Center in Newtown.

But for some plants, it was a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation. "Earlier this summer, my hostas were going like gangbusters," says Clermont gardener Glotfelter. "They looked like they were on steroids."

But now, the humidity and wet conditions have caused many hostas to lose leaves, says Kani Meyer, Hauck horticulture and education specialist at the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati.

"We're having a big problem with fungus in our hosta collection," she says. "Hostas also are getting eaten by slugs, which need moist conditions to exist."

An upside, after all

There's some sunshine in this mushrooming gloom: Mold removal businesses are booming.

Dan Soper, vice president of operations at A-Plus Restoration in Colerain Township, has removed a lot of mold this summer in basements that had been flooded.

While outdoor mold has been a bigger problem than normal this year, the soggy summer has also allowed mold to proliferate indoors because of flooded and damp basements.

Soper doesn't typically wear a respirator because the jobs are usually quick, under a half-hour. But he can tell when there's a lot of the mold in the ceilings and walls.

"I've been in some (basements) where the concentration of mold is so high I can taste it," he says, adding that he's been on a couple of jobs where he's developed a headache within five minutes.

Once a home is flooded, it's common for people to rip up the wet carpet. But that alone won't take care of the mold problem, says William Mullins, senior project specialist with AAA Emergency Services Inc. in Sharonville. Mold can still grow on wet insulation behind the walls. Black mold thrives under such conditions.

Bressler, who battled algae in his pool, relied on R&W Swimming Pools Corp. of Crosby Township for assistance in removing the algae.

"There's been a lot more algae in pools this summer," confirms Dave Rader, the company's customer service representative. "The algae isn't harmful, but it looks nasty. People want their pools to be sparkling and blue.

"With algae, the pool turns cloudy and then green."

Chuck Billingsley, operations manager for Environmental Specialists of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester Township, says his office is getting an extra five to 10 calls on mold every day. He's currently removing mold from a $300,000 house that was foreclosed upon by a bank.

"They have mushrooms growing out of the carpet," he says.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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