By Greg Gelpi
Waving around equipment resembling something a Ghostbuster would carry, Clayton County maintenance workers monitor air quality in school classrooms.
Checking levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, humidity and mold, the Clayton County Schools Maintenance Department prevents air quality problems before they occur, Larry Anderson, the coordinating supervisor of facilities maintenance, said.
"The best way to deal with mold and mildew is to prevent it, and that's what we do," Anderson said. "We take it very seriously. We have very little problems with it. We don't want mold or mildew in our schools anywhere."
Schools are designed to condition air as it's pumped into the building, taking moisture out of the air, which helps prevent mold, he said.
"You can't just bring it in and dump it in the classroom," Anderson said.
The department regularly checks roofs for leaks, which may normally go undetected, leading to the growth of mold.
Anderson said the only mold problem this year was at Lee Street Elementary School. Water leaked through the roof between the bricks and cinder blocks of a wall, and white mold began to grow on the wall as moisture seeped through.
When teachers and school administrators detect an odor or other indicators of mold, the maintenance department is equipped to respond, Walter Murphy, a level-three mechanic with the school system, said.
"The county is good about keeping us up to date with equipment," he said.
Holding an indoor air quality surveyor up to an air-conditioning vent, Murphy measured the air for mold and other air quality factors.
"When you have kids in the classroom, you have got to have this equipment," Anderson said.
Anderson recalled one odor that stumped all of the department's equipment. When he reached inside a desk, he found a bag of rotting cookies.
"We don't take a chance," Anderson said. "We go over and make these checks."
Common mold problems can aggravate allergies, said Michelle Furlong, an assistant professor of microbiology at Clayton College & State University. Mold and mold spores can cause itchy eyes and running noses.
"No mold is awesome, but I kind of doubt that" Furlong said of the school system's mold efforts. "There may be no colonization. Colonization is where you're in trouble."
She explained that mold is everywhere and can be in small traces unable to be detected by some equipment. Mold can infest a building and create significant health problems in what is called "colonization." That, though, is extremely uncommon.
Furlong said one of her students, who lives in an older house, grew ill from a black mold that was growing on a wall recently.
Some rarer molds produce microtoxins which can cause severe illnesses, she said.
The equipment the school system uses detects airborne mold spores, but Georgia Tech is developing a system of using radar technology to detect molds inside walls, Victor DeJesus, a Georgia Tech research scientist, said.
"There are ways, but most of them involve tearing down pieces of Sheetrock," DeJesus said. "We're trying to establish a nondestructive way to find mold. Often times, it goes undetected until it causes a problem."
Mold "degrades" the surface it is on and creates health problems as well, he said.
"It might trigger a variety of health problems," DeJesus said. "That being said not everybody reacts the same way."
Murphy said the school system has regular preventive maintenance to avoid problems before they develop.