25 Investigates: Mold found at many MA public buildings; COVID safety protocols made problem worse

To keep the public safe and COVID-19 at bay, federal guidance requires increased ventilation in public buildings. That has meant opening windows and doors to let fresh, outside air flow indoors.

But, as 25 Investigates uncovered, that outdoor air, combined with the unusually wet summer we just had, may have contributed to another public health issue – mold.

After receiving a tip about mold throughout a major public library, 25 Investigates filed a series of public records requests for mold complaints in public buildings and discovered a widespread problem.

Mold was reported in courthouses, fire stations, libraries and public schools across Massachusetts, and most of the complaints were filed during recent months.

25 Investigates visited the West Plymouth fire station, one of the public buildings reporting mold. The problem there is so bad that the smell of mold hits you as you walk into the building’s living quarters. A leaky roof is to blame for the moldy mess, said Capt. Brian Baragwaneth, who showed a 25 Investigates crew around the station on an early November afternoon.

“The spot right here is what actually finally got this building condemned,” he said, pointing to a large stained sagging portion on the ceiling.

Firefighters and paramedics had to be relocated to a temporary trailer last year.

But once there, the first responders had to follow COVID safety protocols, especially since they’re living in such a small, tight space, according to Chief Ed Bradley. That meant keeping doors and windows open during a humid and rainy summer, and that created an all too familiar scenario - the walls inside the trailer are currently covered in mold too.

“We’re trying to address one problem to keep the crews healthy and it created another problem. And now the building is not healthy,” said Chief Bradley. “I need my staff to be as healthy as they can but the stations are working against me.”

The mold problem goes well beyond the Plymouth fire station.

At Bridgewater State University’s Maxwell Library, 25 Investigates found signs warning of moldy books in early October.

“Libraries are especially susceptible because of all the books and other things that mold loves,” said Mark David Carmody, Bridgewater State’s Assistant Vice President of Operations. “I think across the Commonwealth it’s challenging.”

He says the challenge is combatting humidity while following pandemic precautions.

“One of the strategies is to bring in as much fresh air into the building as possible. That’s hot, humid, fresh air that takes a little bit longer to condition,” he said. “Those things combined create an opportunity for mold to grow.”

Despite having six large dehumidifiers running along with three air scrubbers, Carmody said the University needed to have some 300,000 books especially cleaned, losing dozens in the process. Bridgewater State says it has already spent $250,000 on mold mitigation at the library since July. According to the school’s most recent message to the campus community, the latest test results show air quality levels are safe inside the Maxwell library.

Mold also grew in schools during the pandemic, but for a different reason. School buildings were largely sealed up during remote learning. The lack of ventilation allowed mold to thrive.

South Hadley High School in Western Massachusetts, for example, delayed its September reopening to mitigate mold throughout the building.

25 Investigates reached out to 18 school districts across the state. Of the 13 districts that responded, 11 - including Braintree, Framingham, Salem and Beverly - had mold issues over the last two years, particularly during this past summer. In Duxbury, there were 16 mold complaints at four buildings over a 13 month period and in Plymouth 19 complaints of mold were reported at four different schools over just a three-month period. The majority of the complaints occurred in the month of August, when most districts, in preparation for the current school year, began to reopen buildings that were closed for nearly 18 months due to the pandemic. All 11 responding districts provided documentation of mold remediation work to 25 Investigates.

The state had to also remediate mold issues in courthouses across the state, including Malden, Concord, Newton and West Roxbury. Problems ranged from moderate to severe.

The Hampden County Courthouse in Springfield, for example, was temporarily shut down in August after numerous agencies lodged complaints about the facility.

In all, we found 14 reports of mold at 10 Massachusetts courthouse buildings from July 2020 to Sept 2021.

“Mold itself, if we are breathing it in or inhaling it, it could go into our lungs and stimulate a reaction,” said Dr. Shahzad Khan, a pulmonologist at UMass Medical Center in Worcester. He says mold could trigger a cough, congestion, wheezing and asthma, and a person’s reaction depends on length of exposure.

“It’s usually likely in higher concentrations or for prolonged periods where there’s bad ventilation,” said Dr. Kahn, adding that symptoms like shortness of breath or wheezing shouldn’t be ignored.

Back in Plymouth, Chief Bradley said a recent survey of the station members revealed more than 60% of them were dealing with some health effects of mold exposure, such as sore throat, headache, sinus infection, hives and itchy skin.

Lt. Samuel Palagi, for example, says he’s experienced a lot of allergy symptoms and doesn’t always feel good while at work.

“Every year I’ve had to pay out of pocket for a CT exam of my lungs to make sure that I was healthy,” he said.

“It should be a safe area,” said Chief Bradley. " Out in the street they deal with enough hazards and that shouldn’t have to happen here in the building.”

25 Investigates contacted the Plymouth town manager’s office for comment on when and how they plan to address the mold problem at the West Plymouth fire station.

By email, town manager Melissa Arrighi said:

“The Town has been aggressively and actively working on upgrading and renovating many of our Fire Stations as well as our other older town and school buildings. In addition, our Select Board and Town Meeting representatives have continually funded projects to make these improvements.”